What Happens to Parents’ Debt when They Die?

There are two common myths about what happens when parents die in debt, says a recent article “How your parents’ debt could outlive them” from the Greenfield Reporter. One is the adult child will be liable for the debt. The second is that the adult child won’t.

If your parents have significant debts and you are concerned about what the future may bring, talk with an estate planning attorney for guidance. Here’s some of what you need to know.

Debt doesn’t disappear when someone dies. Creditors file claims against the estate, and in most instances, those debts must be paid before assets are distributed to heirs. Surprisingly to heirs, creditors are allowed to contact relatives about the debts, even if those family members don’t have any legal obligation to pay the debts. Collection agencies in many states are required to affirmatively state that the family members are not obligated to pay the debt, but they may not always comply.

Some family members feel they need to dig into their own pockets and pay the debt. Speak with an estate planning lawyer before taking this action, because the estate may not have any obligation to reimburse you.

For the most part, family members don’t have to use their own money to pay a loved one’s debts, unless they co-signed a loan, are a joint-account holder or agreed to be held responsible for the debt. Other reasons someone may be obligated include living in a state requiring surviving spouses to pay medical bills or other outstanding debts. If you live in a community property state, a spouse may be liable for a spouse’s debts.

Executors are required to distribute money to creditors first. Therefore, if you distributed all the assets and then planned on “getting around” to paying creditors and ran out of funds, you could be sued for the outstanding debts.

More than half of the states still have “filial responsibility” laws to require adult children to pay parents’ bills. These are old laws left over from when America had debtors’ prisons. They are rarely enforced, but there was a case in 2012 when a nursing home used Pennsylvania’s law and successfully sued a son for his mother’s $93,0000 nursing home bill. An estate planning attorney practicing in the state of your parents’ residence is your best source of the state’s law and enforcement.

If a person dies with more debts than assets, their estate is considered insolvent. The state’s law determines the order of bill payment. Legal and estate administration fees are paid first, followed by funeral and burial expenses. If there are dependent children or spouses, there may be a temporary living allowance left for them. Secured debt, like a home mortgage or car loan, must be repaid or refinanced. Otherwise, the lender may reclaim the property. Federal taxes and any federal debts get top priority for repayment, followed by any debts owed to state taxes.

If the person was receiving Medicaid for nursing home care, the state may file a claim against the estate or file a lien against the home. These laws and procedures all vary from state to state, so you’ll need to talk with an elder law attorney.

Many creditors won’t bother filing a claim against an insolvent estate, but they may go after family members. Debt collection agencies are legally permitted to contact a surviving spouse or executor, or to contact relatives to ask how to reach the spouse or executor.

Planning in advance is the best route. However, if parents are resistant to talking about money, or incapacitated, speak with an estate planning attorney to learn how to protect your parents and yourself.

Reference: Greenfield Reporter (Feb. 3, 2022) “How your parents’ debt could outlive them”

Can You Remove Someone from a Life Estate?

Parents often use life estates to leave the family home to children, while remaining in the house for the rest of their lives. However, sometimes things don’t work out as intended. If and how changes may be made to a life estate is the focus of a recent article “How to Remove Someone from a Life Estate” from Yahoo! Finance. For the life estate to be flexible, certain provisions must be in the document when it is first created. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to do this right.

A life estate allows two or more people to jointly own real estate property. One person, referred to as the “life tenant” has ownership of the property for as long as they live. The other person, called the “remainderman,” takes possession only after the life tenant’s death. Multiple people can be named as life tenant and remainderman. However, the more people involved, the more complicated this arrangement becomes.

The remainderman has an unusual position. They don’t have full possession of the property until the life tenant dies, yet they have an interest in the property. The life tenant is not allowed to do certain things, like take out a mortgage or sell the property, without the consent of the remainderman.

The remainderman must agree to any changes in any person or persons named as other remainderman. If there’s more than one, which happens when there’s more than one adult child, for instance, all of the remaindermen must agree, before any names on the life estate can be removed or changed.

If one of the remainderman becomes heavily indebted, has a contentious divorce, or is sued for a considerable sum, their share of the property could be lost to creditors, ex-spouses, or adversaries. In that case, removing the problematic remainderman could protect the value of the home.

Most life estates are irrevocable, and the laws concerning life estates vary by state.

One way to work around the need for remainderman approval, is to use a Testamentary Power of Appointment, a clause in a will permitting the life tenant to change the person to whom the property will be left upon death. Invoking the Power of Appointment doesn’t make the life estate invalid, so the tenant is still constrained from selling the property or taking any other actions without permission from the remaindermen.

The testamentary power of appointment does give the life tenant some negotiating muscle but must be built into the documents from the start.

Another trust used in this situation is the Nominee Realty Trust. This is a revocable trust holding legal title to real estate. A property owner files a new deed transferring ownership to the nominee realty trust. The trust specifies who receives the property after the owner’s death. The grantor of the nominee trust can direct the actions of the trustee, so the life tenant has the legal ability to tell the trustee to change the names of the remaindermen. This flexibility may be desirable when the children are problematic. This has to be set up when the life estate is first established.

There are occasions when the remainderman wants to terminate the interest of the life tenant. This is actually easier than removing or changing the remainderman but requires the life tenant to do something particularly egregious or illegal. The life tenant has certain rights: to rent out the property, to change or improve the property—as long as the property is being improved. The life tenant is responsible for paying taxes, maintaining the property and avoiding any liens being placed on the property.

If the life tenant does not fulfill their responsibilities or allows the property to lose value, it may be possible for the remainderman to have the life tenant’s interest terminated. However, that depends upon the provisions in the life estate. This option should be discussed and planned for when the life estate is created.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Dec. 16, 2021) “How to Remove Someone from a Life Estate”