I read with visceral disgust an article in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about a new specialty of debt collectors, who contact the relatives of deceased people who have died leaving debts, and try to convince them that they have a moral obligation to pay the debt. This is a growing business. One such company advertises its services as “a proven approach that yields high returns at a low risk to the client’s reputation.” Translation: we can get your money without making you look bad for harassing grieving widows and orphans.
A relative is not generally responsible for a decedent’s debts unless they were jointly liable prior to the death (e.g. a joint credit card account or a mortgage). If someone dies leaving a will or dies intestate (without a will) with debts and assets the survivors will have to deal with all of this. This is what the probate process is for. It can be hard enough dealing with probate and dealing with the inevitable collection agencies that refuse to recognize the fact that someone may actually be dead (you would not believe some of the automated letters I have seen). However, to claim that the survivors somehow have a legal or a moral duty to pay these debts out of their own pockets is both reprehensible and in violation of Federal Law. It’s hard enough to deal with the loss of a loved one and to settle their affairs- but to be bullied and lied to during the process is repugnant. There is a special place in Hell for these folks.