Liability for debts of the deceased?
July 6, 2015 7:54 PM   Subscribe

How liable is my wife for the debts her father had when he passed away? How close can collections get to our assets, and/or the assets we received from him? Can they impact her credit score?

My wife and I are dealing with what felt like a relatively simple estate situation that has become increasingly complicated.

Her father passed away in May, and she and her sister were named beneficiaries in the letter that was the closest thing to a will that he left. They were also both named beneficiaries for his TIAA-CREF accounts, and my wife was the beneficiary of his bank account (with the understanding from his letter being that she would split it with her sister).

It all seemed pretty easy at first: We closed the bank account, paid the funeral home, and started closing his other accounts. Once we did so, we figured out that among other things, her sister (with whom relations with us are extremely strained for various reasons including this) had used her father's credit card to charge almost a thousand dollars in flights without ever letting us know or offering to pay for after the fact. This is not the first time she has done something like this to us. We have no idea if he authorized her to make the charges.

We called the card company to get a final statement, and when we figured out his card had been used after he was in the hospital and not in possession of it, we disputed all of the non-automatic charges. We then figured out what they were and explained this to the card company. They have not been super-helpful generally.

We don't want to pay this bill (or at least this portion of it), but we don't know what the ramifications of doing that could be if the card company doesn't take the charges off. Can they come after my wife? Can they come after money my wife received as a beneficiary? Can they ding her credit score?

We've been handling this ourselves so far and do not officially have an estate executor or anything like that. We're in MA, if it matters. YANML, obvs.
posted by rollbiz to Law & Government (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
IANAL. If you or your spouse did not sign up for the credit cards, you are not responsible, period. His estate is, and that can affect how much is left to inherit. They generally cannot ding your credit score for not paying a bill when you didn't sign on it. I'm not sure if they can claw back money that's already been disbursed. It's called unsecured debt for a reason, but you may need to get a lawyer's advice on that one.

Moving on to the issue of the possibly unauthorized charge - the difficulty there is whether you're willing to have the sister charged with fraudulent use of a credit card. If you yourself admit that you don't know if he authorized the charges, may be best to leave that alone.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:03 PM on July 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am sorry for your loss. I have recently been an executor for an estate in Massachusetts. randomkeystrike is basically correct in my experience (which is not lawyerly). With the death of your wife's father there is now a legal entity which is his estate. Did you file an application for probate? Your wife's money is still hers. Her father's money may or may not be hers and may need to be used to settle the debts of the estate (but they are separate legal entities, this will not affect her credit score etc).

However that is not quite what you are asking since you're not even sure that these debts will accrue to the estate. I would push HARD on the credit card company. That said, the money she received as a beneficiary would, in an official estate proceeding, need to be used to settle debts before it paid out to people. So could they "come after" her? Unlikely. Would it be a pain? Maybe. And yes if you don't know if these charges are fraudulent, this may be more of a mess than you want to deal with. Or, depending on the size of the estate, may be something that is worth getting an hour or two of a lawyer's time to help with. Sometimes one good letter form a lawyer can get credit card companies to start being more reasonable.
posted by jessamyn at 8:12 PM on July 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you can prove that the card was NOT in possession, and could not have given consent and charges were NOT authorized then you should not have to pay.

Your wife is no NO way responsible for her father's debt.

Her father's estate will go through probate unless there's a living trust or will we don't know about. Unlikely, of course.

As Jessamyn said, get a lawyer to write a letter confirming the death of individual, plus some documentation that would at least suggest the card's use were not authorized. You don't have to mention your sister's name. Bank will yank the payment from the airline, and airline may come after the estate, but then they should realize they are fighting a losing cause and give up, not worth the effort.

And karma will get the douchebag... eventually.
posted by kschang at 8:28 PM on July 6, 2015

the closest thing to a will that he left.

This might not be a will.

They were also both named beneficiaries for his TIAA-CREF accounts

This might be outside of the probate process and immune from creditors.

and my wife was the beneficiary of his bank account (with the understanding from his letter being that she would split it with her sister).

This may be only your wife's money, and outside of the probate process.

YANML, obvs.

And this is obviously not legal advice. A lawyer in Massachusetts can explain how to stop the financial damage that you may be doing to yourself and your wife if you continue to navigate this process without a better understanding of probate law in Massachusetts. Information about how to find an attorney and links to state-specific resources is available at the MeFi Wiki Get a lawyer page.

Also, the credit card might not even be an issue if the probate estate is small, and a lawyer can explain how to approach the credit card company if there is any money available to creditors, and if there is anything left for the credit card company after the priority debts are paid.
posted by Little Dawn at 8:46 PM on July 6, 2015 [11 favorites]

People giving you advice from their experience of a situation nearly like yours, are inevitably going to mislead you.

You don't even know if you have a will. You need a lawyer.
posted by tel3path at 2:15 AM on July 7, 2015 [20 favorites]

Take what you read on this page only as informational points, to become a little more knowledgeable before you talk to a lawyer.

Most decedents own a combination of (1) property in their own name without any other joint owner or beneficiary and (2) property which will pass automatically on their deaths to others by virtue of joint ownership, beneficiary designations, or otherwise. A will and a probate proceedings would, in most states, govern only the former.

Every state's laws are different, so only a Massachusetts-based lawyer can tell you whether the (2) property may have to respond to claims by her father's creditors.

Follow Little Dawn's recommendation. Do it soon.
posted by megatherium at 3:41 AM on July 7, 2015

Some states have laws that, I kid you not, allow creditors to go after the surviving offspring for payment of the parents' debts. They are called Filial Support laws. I don't know if Massachusetts has such a law. They were pretty much ignored for ages, but began to be used again when the economy tanked.

You need to speak with a lawyer with experience in these matters.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:13 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I think you need to consult with a lawyer in your area. I am not a Massachusetts lawyer, probate lawyer, or your lawyer; and this is not legal advice. But as I understand it, some few states allow creditors to go after deceased parents' surviving children, at least for some types of debt. And even if that's not the case, it's possible that a creditor can claw back money from an estate that has already been distributed. And this is all regardless of the open question about whether he had a will, and if so, what its effect was (which could determine whether the money was yours in the first place, etc.).
posted by J. Wilson at 6:26 AM on July 7, 2015

I am admitted to practice in Massachusetts. I am not your lawyer. You should speak to a lawyer.
Your questions are reasonable. The answers will depend on the specific facts. To get those answers you should speak to a lawyer.
posted by mattbcoset at 9:50 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

One thing you may want to consider is just how much you want to push the sister angle. People in the hospital, or in pain, say and do weird, uncharacteristic things, and are often prone to agreeing to things that seem weird. "Hey dad, can I use your credit card for X flight?" "Sure kid, whatever, I'm dying here" is really not outside the realms of probability. Which means if you want to fight the charges, you would actually have to prosecute your sister - otherwise, there is a legitimate debt.
posted by corb at 3:38 PM on July 7, 2015

If you're still reading this - agreed with jessamyn, and perhaps others, that the precedence of the credit card company should not be automatically assumed to trump other payees. They're doing what bill collectors do, which is being the squeaky wheel to try to get the grease.

And reinforcing the point, which I thought about saying but didn't - lawyer, lawyer, lawyer. There is no way you should be going through a probate/estate process without one.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:38 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

It probably wasn't obvious from my snippy issue-spotting response, but this seems like a nearly perfect law school exam question because there are several possible complicating factors at the outset. Overall, it sounds like there was some estate planning that happened and it was mostly designed to make the process simpler, so it may get a lot easier after the preliminary issues are addressed.

A Massachusetts lawyer with probate experience likely can help untangle the preliminary issues, and help determine how much legal assistance is needed. There is a lot of legal information online, including Massachusetts law about wills and estates, and the MUPC Estate Administration Guide (which includes links to Massachusetts court forms) that may be helpful for learning more about the process.
posted by Little Dawn at 11:40 AM on July 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

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