Here at LindenFinancial Consultants, we often have to deal with topics that most people would rather not, and death is one of them. A particularly common question we hear from people settling an estate is: which of these bills do I really have to pay? Let’s talk about after-death cash flow.
There are always going to be some bills after someone dies that come every month like utilities, phone, mortgages, home equity loans, etc… and few people have any questions about covering those. It’s dealing with the less obvious ones that I often hear the “do we really have to pay this?” question. As I’m sure you can guess, I usually respond with my favourite reply of “it depends.”
In an ideal world, if you are agreeing to be the executor of an estate, pulling that person’s credit report would be part of the process so you know what the estate has for obligations. Unfortunately, while not impossible, pulling the credit report for someone who is either on their way out the door or well on through it, isn’t particularly easy. That being said, it can be well worth the effort so that you are making educated decisions about the estate. Here are some, but not all, of the liabilities you might be faced with:
Secured debt – This is going to cover primarily mortgages, home equity lines of credit, and vehicle loans. If the debt is secured then the estate or heir has to keep making the payments or sell the property to clear the debt. This one’s pretty cut and dry so let’s move on to unsecured liabilities.
Credit cards – I’ve lost count of the number of people surprised by the balances being carried on credit cards once they start sorting out the estate details. If the deceased was an “owner” of the card then, technically that debt is owed. If the deceased was an “authorized signer” on a card, then their estate isn’t liable for the debt (the “owner” is). What’s the difference you ask? The “owner” is the person (or persons) who applied for the card and signed the application whereas the “authorized signer” is someone who has a card that is associated with the “owner’s” account but didn’t actually participate in the application. This is an important distinction when getting divorced as well. In the event of the “owner’s” death, the credit card company can come after the estate for payment but if there isn’t anything left in the estate and there isn’t a “co-owner” of the card to hold liable, they are pretty much out of luck.
Medical bills – Final medical bills are often considered either the responsibility of the surviving spouse or the estate and this is usually buried in the paperwork being signed when someone is admitted to a hospital or senior facility. If there is no money in the estate and the survivor has relatively little for assets and income, these bills might be waived otherwise they should be paid or a payment structure arranged.
Student loans – While I’d love to say that everyone dies of old age, unfortunately, that isn’t always the case (the average age of a widow in the U.S. is down to the mid-50s) and that can mean passing away with liabilities we wouldn’t see with our older population. If the student loan is a Federal loan, it is usually forgiven. If it is with a non-Federal entity it may or may not be forgiven which means the estate might be required to clear that loan from the estate’s assets. As with credit card debt, a hard-nosed negotiation can often get this lowered or removed from the balance sheet.
Now, let’s say there are some unsecured liabilities and the main assets are life insurance benefits and/or retirement account dollars. If those assets are settled straight out to the beneficiaries then those dollars are protected from having to clear the unsecured liabilities. If the beneficiary designation says “estate” or there isn’t a designation then those dollars head on over to the estate account where they are used to clear the liabilities, and the remainder, if there is any, gets settled by way of the will. Even if you aren’t carrying any debt, one of the best gifts you can give your heirs is making sure your beneficiary designations are all in place and this extends to the estates of all your loved ones.
When/If we head into a more challenging economic situation and you are the one cleaning up someone’s estate, remember that you don’t have to make any payments on unsecured debt until you are ready to (OK, you can’t take forever, but you can certainly take a month or two to figure things out). Don’t let someone coax, cajole, or threaten you into making even one payment—doing that can be the equivalent of acknowledging liability for the whole debt and be a real pain if that isn’t in the estate’s best interest.