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After a relative dies, the last thing a grieving family member wants is a call from a debt collector asking them to pay a loved one’s debt. Here’s what to know about the rules and your rights when a collector contacts you about a deceased relative’s debts.

Who is responsible for a deceased person’s debts?

As a rule, a person’s debts do not go away when they die. Those debts are owed by and paid from the deceased person’s estate. By law, family members usually don’t have to pay the debts of a deceased relative from their own money. If there isn’t enough money in the estate to cover the debt, it usually goes unpaid. But there are exceptions to this rule. You may be personally responsible for the debt if you

  • cosigned the obligation, like a car loan
  • are the deceased person’s spouse and live in a community property state, such as California
  • are the deceased person’s spouse and live in a state that requires you to pay certain kinds of debt, like some healthcare expenses
  • were legally responsible for resolving the estate and didn’t follow certain state probate laws

If you have questions about whether you’re legally required to pay a deceased person’s debts from your own money, talk to a lawyer. Depending on your income, you may qualify for free legal services from a legal aid organization near you.

Who pays debts out of the deceased person’s assets?

The executor — the person named in a will to carry out what it says after the person’s death — is responsible for settling the deceased person’s debts.

If there’s no will, the court may appoint an administrator, personal representative, or universal successor and give them the power to settle the affairs of the estate. In some states, that power may be granted to someone else who was not appointed by the court. For example, state law may establish another process for someone to become the representative of the estate even if they haven’t been formally appointed by the court.

Who can a debt collector contact about a deceased person’s debt?

The law protects people — including family members — from debt collectors who use abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to try to collect a debt.

Under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), collectors can contact and discuss outstanding debts only with the deceased person’s

  • spouse
  • parent(s) — if the deceased was a minor child, which is generally defined as under age 18
  • legal guardian
  • lawyer
  • executor, administrator, or personal representative with the power to pay debts with assets from the deceased person’s estate
  • confirmed successor in interest, which is someone a mortgage servicer has confirmed as a new owner of the deceased person’s real estate

Debt collectors may not discuss the debts of a deceased person with anyone else. 

If you’re in one of the categories listed above, you have rights. For example, debt collectors

  • can’t contact you before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. (unless you agree to it)
  • can’t contact you at work if you tell them you’re not allowed to get calls there
  • can’t contact you by email or text message if you request them to stop

A collector also has to give you “validation information” about the debt, either during the collector’s first phone call with you or in writing within five days after first contacting you. That information must include

  • the name and mailing address of the debt collector
  • how much money you owe, written out to list interest, fees, payments, and credits
  • the name of the creditor you owe it to
  • what to do if you don’t think it’s your debt
  • your debt collection rights
  • a tear-off form that can be used to send back to the debt collector to dispute the debt or take other actions.

Can a debt collector contact me to get information about a deceased person’s representatives?

Collectors can contact relatives or other people connected to the deceased (who don’t have the power to pay debts from the estate) to get the contact information of the deceased person’s representatives. This contact information includes the name, address, and telephone number of the deceased person’s spouse, executor, administrator, personal representative, or other person who can act on behalf of the deceased person’s estate. Collectors can usually only contact these people one time to get this information, and they can’t discuss the details of the debt.

Collectors can reach out again to ask for updated information, or if the relative or other person gave the collector wrong or incomplete information. But collectors still can’t discuss the debt.

Can I stop a debt collector from contacting me about a deceased relative’s debt? 

If you’re responsible for paying a deceased relative’s debt, the law gives you many of the same rights as the original debtor. This includes stopping a collection company from contacting you. To do this, email or send a letter to the collector. A phone call isn’t enough. Tell the collector you don’t want them to contact you again. Keep a copy of the email or letter for your files, and if you send a letter, send it by certified mail and pay for a “return receipt” so you’re able to document when the collector got the letter.

Once the collection company gets your request, it can only contact you to

  • confirm it will stop contacting you in the future
  • say it plans to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit

But even if you stop collectors from communicating with you, the debt doesn’t go away. The collectors may still try to collect the debt from the estate or anyone else who is responsible for paying it.

To learn more about debt collection and your rights, read Debt Collection FAQs.

How to report problems with a debt collector

Report any problems you have with a debt collector to

Many states have their own debt collection laws that are different from federal law. Your state attorney general's office can help you understand your rights under your state’s law.