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If two people marry, they probably hope they’ll have long and happy lives together. They also hope that one or the other does not die in an untimely fashion. Still, you never can tell what the future will bring. Sometimes, unfortunate accidents occur, or an illness claims one spouse while sparing the other.
If that happens, the remaining spouse will need to sort through the deceased individual’s affairs, and their debts are a part of that. You might wonder, as the remaining spouse, what your responsibility is regarding those debts. Let’s go over that a little bit right now.
Your Spouse’s Death Complicates Your Life for a While
If a spouse dies, you might find out all kinds of things about them that you didn’t know. It’s usually best when spouses are very open and honest with each other about things like cash reserves, credit card debt, student loans, and so forth.
However, it’s the rare individual who knows every detail of their spouse’s financial situation. Sometimes, it’s only when they die that you find out about it.
Apart from their finances, you’ll need to determine whether you can pursue a wrongful death claim against anyone. For instance, if an illness kills your spouse, you might feel like there’s no one you can hold liable from a legal standpoint. However, maybe a doctor’s inaction killed them every bit as much as the illness or injury did.
You might hold a company liable if one of their products killed your spouse. You might hold a business accountable if their unsafe conditions killed your loved one. Maybe they slipped and sustained a fatal head injury and there was inadequate signage warning of the danger.
You’ll Have to Deal with Creditors
Even while you’re dealing with a wrongful death suit, if you feel like you can bring one, creditors will start calling you or reaching out by regular mail or email. Maybe your spouse had outstanding student loans, credit card debt, small business loans, and so forth.
You might be struggling through each day with the sorrow still very real to you. Your spouse’s creditors, though, won’t care about that. They might give it lip service, but make no mistake, they want their money as soon as they can get it.
What is Your Legal Responsibility in These Situations?
The obvious question at this point is what you need to pay in your spouse’s place and for what debts their creditors will forgive you. This is a multifaceted process that can be very tough for you to figure out.
The short answer is that what you need to pay back versus what you don’t varies tremendously state by state. Few federal guidelines determine what you have to pay back and what you don’t. Like so many other things, each state sets the rules, and there are no two regions that are exactly alike.
The Probate Process
Getting through the probate process will help you determine what you owe and what you don’t. Probate is a judicial proceeding. It is where you produce your spouse’s will, assuming they had one.
A court has to accept it as a valid legal document. If a lawyer witnessed your spouse writing the will and signed off on it, that’s going to go a long way toward making it valid. If your spouse wrote their will in crayon on a cocktail napkin, you’d have a lot more trouble getting a court to validate it.
Once you finish the probate process, you’ll be in a much better position to figure out what debts you owe and have to pay in your deceased spouse’s stead.
Once you get through probate, you’ll likely have to pay your spouse’s various debts, or not, based on statutory requirements. Statutes are formal written enactments pertaining to a particular city, state, region, etc.
In other words, a statute is a rule or precedent, usually one that has legal weight, even if it is not necessarily a law. If a statute declares that people do things this way, you typically have to follow that, although you might be able to launch a legal challenge if you hire a good lawyer.
Nasty Surprises Might Await You
Before, we talked about how spouses don’t always know everything about each other’s monetary situations. Once you get through the probate process and start dealing with legal statutes, you might find out that your spouse has gone into much more debt than you ever realized. You’d hope this won’t happen, but this situation is not that uncommon.
You might have joint checking, savings, or retirement accounts, but your spouse may also have separate credit card debts amounting to thousands of dollars or more. For the most part, creditors cannot hold you responsible for your spouse’s debt that they racked up without your knowledge.
There are always exceptions to that rule. As we stated before, every state handles these things differently. Your spouse’s creditors might come at you with all kinds of legal trickery to try to get you to pay if they feel like it’s worth it to pursue the matter.
You have to comply with all applicable statutes and laws. Maybe your state has ones that say you’re going to become your spouse’s estate’s representative. If so, you have to manage their assets and debts through the probate process, and that might involve paying some or all of the obligations they accrued.
The real takeaway from all of this is that when your spouse dies if there was any complex or concealed part of their financial life, you’re more than likely going to be the one who has to sort through all of it. It’s not going to be easy, and you’re probably going to want to find a lawyer who’s an expert in these matters.
Without one, you’ll have to navigate a treacherous legal obstacle course, sometimes with big money on the line, at the same time you’re mourning.