Are you responsible for a dead spouse’s debt?


Q. My cousin’s husband died. She made calls to a creditor related to a medical bill and was told she was not responsible. She is now being told that another company bought the original debt and she is responsible. She has not yet filed a tax return for the estate. Is there a time period she can put off the creditors so she can see if taxes are due and what money is left in the estate, if any. There was no life insurance and she is not entitled to his Social Security. The only asset is their home.
— Trying to help

A. We’re sorry for your loss.

As New Jersey is not a community property state, a surviving spouse if not held liable for debts left behind by a deceased spouse, said Karra Kingston, a bankruptcy attorney in Union City.

She said community property states give spouses the ability to choose whether they want to assign their debts as community property. In community property states, the debts are held equal between two spouses.

Because New Jersey is not a community property state, a surviving spouse is not held liable for debts unless the surviving spouse signed for the debt. If the surviving spouse didn’t sign for the debt, there should be no impact on his or her credit score, she said.

“Keep in mind that the deceased person’s estate can be held responsible to repay outstanding creditors,” Kingston said. “If a deceased spouse’s estate is small there are some protections. In New Jersey, a simplified probate system is used when a deceased has no more than $20,000 in assets. The surviving spouse would be entitled to that total number.”

Email your questions to .

This story was originally published on April 13, 2020. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.