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Alderman: Will your children inherit your debt?

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opinion Fargo,North Dakota 58102
West Fargo Pioneer
Alderman: Will your children inherit your debt?
Fargo North Dakota 101 5th Street North 58102

Many people finally get around to writing a will in order to safeguard their assets for their heirs. But what if you’ve got the opposite problem: Your nest egg was decimated by the recession, bad investments or simply living longer than expected and now you’ve got a mountain of bills you can’t pay off.


Will your kids inherit your debts after you die?

The short answer is, not in most cases. But there are situations where someone could be legally responsible for paying off your bills after death. Plus, aggressive creditors have been known to coerce heirs into paying off debts for which they’re not responsible.

If you’re afraid that your financial legacy will be a heap of unpaid bills, here’s what you need to know and prepare for:

In general, children aren’t responsible for paying off their parents’ unsecured debts – things like credit cards, personal loans and medical bills, which aren’t collateralized by physical property. If there’s not enough money in the estate to pay off those bills, creditors will have to write them off.

There are several exceptions, however:

  • If your child, spouse or other acquaintance is a cosigner on a credit card or loan (e.g., mortgage, car, personal loan), they share equal responsibility for paying it off. 
  • If someone is a joint account holder – that is, their income and credit history were used to help obtain the loan or credit card – they’re generally responsible to pay off the balance.
  • Widows and widowers are responsible for their deceased spouse’s debts if they live in a community property state.

Note that authorized users on your credit cards aren’t liable for repayment since they didn’t originally apply for the credit. Chances are they were simply “piggybacking” on your credit record to help build their own. However, to protect authorized users from being bothered by creditors after your death, you may want to remove them from your accounts.

Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs.