Medical debt after death: Who’s responsible?

Man talking on cellphone in dimly lit room, figuring out medical debt after deathImage: Man talking on cellphone in dimly lit room, figuring out medical debt after death

In a Nutshell

Medical debt doesn’t disappear when someone passes away. In most cases, the deceased person’s estate is responsible for paying any debt left behind, including medical bills. If there’s not enough money in the estate, family members still generally aren’t responsible for covering a loved one’s medical debt after death — although there are some exceptions.  
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After a loved one dies, unpaid medical bills are probably the last thing you want to think about. But if a bill collector contacts you about medical bills after the death of a loved one, you may wonder if you have to pay.

Generally, any debts a deceased person leaves behind get paid out of the individual’s estate. If there’s not enough money or assets in the estate, debts typically go unpaid. That means relatives are usually not required to pay their deceased loved one’s debt — but there are some exceptions. For example, surviving spouses in community property states may have some responsibility to pay off debts (more on that below).

Looking specifically at medical debt, your obligations may depend on your relationship to the deceased and the laws in the state where your loved one lived.

Who’s responsible for debt after death?

When someone dies, they may leave an estate, which is generally all the money and property the person owned when they passed away. If the deceased person had debts, they’ll be paid out of the estate, either through any bank accounts the person had or by selling their assets.

An executor (someone named in the deceased person’s will to handle their affairs) will be responsible for ensuring the bills get paid out of the estate. In cases where the deceased person didn’t have a will, the courts may appoint an administrator or someone else to do the job.

The executor must prioritize debts for payment based on federal and state laws. If there isn’t enough money to cover the debts, creditors may look for someone else to pay the bills. But, in most cases, no one is legally obligated to use their own money to pay off a deceased person’s debts.

There are exceptions, though.

You may be liable for a loved one’s debt if …

  • You co-signed for the debt, such as a loan.
  • You’re a joint account holder for a credit card. This would make you responsible for paying off any balance. If you’re simply an authorized user of the credit card, then you usually won’t have to pay for the credit card debt.
  • The deceased person was your spouse and you live in a community property state or the deceased was your parent and state law requires you to pay a certain kind of debt, such as healthcare costs. (More on this shortly.)
  • You were the executor, or other responsible representative, of an estate and you didn’t follow state probate laws as required.

What is an ‘insolvent estate’?

If the deceased person’s debts exceed the value of the assets in the estate, it’s considered an “insolvent estate.” Because there’s not enough money in the estate to pay the medical bills and other debts, those debts may go unpaid.

Do I have to pay my spouse’s medical debt?

If your spouse passes away with medical debt, will you be responsible for it? That depends on many factors, including the state where you lived as a married couple.

If you are the executor or responsible person for your spouse’s estate, it’ll be your job to pay their debts out of their estate. 

And if you and your spouse resided in a community property state, you may be personally responsible for paying your late spouse’s debts, including medical debts, whether or not their estate can cover them. That’s because in community property states, most assets gained and debts incurred by one spouse during the marriage are owned or owed by the marital “community,” or both spouses. 

Community property states include Alaska (if a special agreement is signed), Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma (if a special agreement is signed), South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

But if you don’t live in a community property state, and your late spouse’s estate isn’t sufficient to cover their debts, in most cases you won’t be responsible for your spouse’s remaining debts, including medical debts.

Do I have to pay my parent’s medical debt?

If you share responsibility with your parent for a debt — such as co-signing a loan or a nursing home contract — you may be responsible for that debt after your parent passes away. But in some states, it’s also possible (but highly unlikely) that an adult child could be held responsible for paying their deceased parent’s unpaid medical bills even without shared responsibility for the debts.

That’s a scary prospect, but don’t panic. The first thing to know is that this depends on whether your parent died in a state with a filial responsibility statute or filial support law.

Under these laws, adult children may be held responsible for financially helping a parent who can’t support themselves, including paying for their medical care. Some of these laws even extend to close relatives, meaning adults could be expected to care for others in their family.

But while many states still have laws like these on the books, there’s little uniformity in how they apply. And some states may make exceptions for adult children who can’t afford to pay their parents’ debts, or if the parents abandoned the child when they were a minor.

Other states may simply not enforce their filial support laws.

If you live in a state with a filial responsibility statute and have a deceased parent who left behind medical or healthcare debt, it may be a good idea to talk to an attorney about what your obligations could be.

Also, if your parent received Medicaid, the program can seek repayment for certain services from the time your parent was 55 until death. The state where your parent died may try to recover the payments, but it can only recover the money from the assets, if any, in your parent’s estate.

Can a creditor seize a deceased person’s life insurance to pay a bill?

Probably not. Assets like life insurance policies, which pay out to beneficiaries, generally aren’t included as assets for estate purposes. So when an insured person dies, the payout from the policy belongs to the beneficiary of the policy, and not the deceased person’s estate.

What can I do about debt collectors?

Although debt collectors can contact the parents of a minor child, a spouse, a guardian, or an executor or administrator to discuss a loved one’s medical debt, they must follow rules under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

This means they can only contact you during certain times, and they must end communication with you if you make that request in writing. This won’t relieve you of debts if they’re your responsibility, but you can ask the debt collector to work only with your attorney.

Also, check your credit reports to see whether the debt collector improperly reported your spouse’s debts under your name. Contact the credit reporting company and dispute the information. You can also file a complaint about the debt collector with the Federal Trade Commission.

What’s next?

Medical debt doesn’t disappear when a person passes away. Usually, medical debt, along with other debts, will be paid out of the person’s estate. But if the deceased person didn’t leave sufficient assets to cover all their debts, bill collectors in some cases may look for someone else to pay.

If a debt collector contacts you about someone else’s unpaid medical debt, it’s important to know your rights and responsibilities.

Here are some steps to take.

You can ask for proof the deceased person owed the debt and why the debt collector believes you’re responsible for it. You can also ask an estate law attorney to help you determine if you’re responsible for the debt. Some attorneys offer free or reduced-cost legal advice, so look for legal aid offices or legal clinics in your area.

If you’re legally accountable for paying the bill, the creditor may be willing to negotiate a lower payment, waive fees or put you on a payment plan. You may also be able to deduct the medical expenses on your taxes.

A general credit counselor may also be helpful.

About the author: Kim Porter is a writer and editor who has written for AARP the Magazine, Credit Karma,, U.S. News & World Report, and more. Her favorite topics include maximizing credit card rewards and budgeting. Wh… Read more.