Where to look for your loved one’s debts
If your loved one left a will or trust, a list of their debts may be kept in the same place as these important documents.
If not, you’ll need to do a comprehensive search through paperwork and digital files.
Contact the three credit reporting agencies and request your loved one’s credit report, which will list credit cards they had, loans they took out, and their lines of credit.
As part of probate you will likely need to post a notice to creditors in the local newspaper notifying them of your loved one’s passing, giving them the opportunity to come forward with any claims for money owed.
Debt advisors can help you figure out how, when, and what to pay.
After someone has passed, it’s tough to take on all the paperwork and related responsibilities while also trying to grieve. If you’re an executor of the estate, or dealing with arrangements until it’s officially decided, you will still need to tackle some of these tasks. One of the first important jobs is to find and gather your loved one’s debts.
This can be an easy task or an extremely difficult one, depending on the person and the state of their affairs at the time of their death. There are types of debt that need to be paid off or transferred, like a home mortgage, and there are debts that do not need to be dealt with right away, like credit cards. There are also different instances of ownership, like sole or joint debts. In this time of emotional stress, it’s helpful to understand these and prioritize them in order to ease some of your burden.
The first hurdle when it comes to paying off debts, however, is where to find them. If the estate is left in disarray or if someone passed unexpectedly, their debts may not be easily accessible or listed in one place. You’ll want to start looking for the most common types: mortgages, car loans, student loans, medical bills, and credit cards.
Where to find debts
If your loved one left a will or another form of estate plan, a list of their debts may be kept together with these important documents. Typically, one might keep these documents with a lawyer, in a safe-deposit box, in an in-home safe, or in a filing cabinet in a secure location.
If there was no such list, you’ll likely need to sort through their paperwork, financial statements, and possibly emails and other digital accounts. This can feel like a long and menial process, so try to be patient—with yourself, with anyone helping you search, and with your loved one who passed away. If it helps, keep in mind that preparing for your own passing is scary and overwhelming for all of us.
Aside from your loved one’s papers, a good guide to what debts they owe will be their credit report. If you have not already done so, it is highly recommended that you contact the three credit reporting agencies to put a freeze on your loved one’s credit. They will send you a credit report, which should contain information on any credit cards, loans, and lines of credit your loved one had.
Finally, if you know your loved one had a safe-deposit box, or if you find a key to one, it might be worth looking there to find any evidence of debts. Safe-deposit boxes can be difficult to access before you’re formally named an executor, and you may need a court order in some states and some banks. If you do gain access, you will generally only be able to inventory and photograph the items inside, not remove anything until probate begins.
Once you’re named the executor, you can return for the list of debts and the rest of the contents of the box. At this point, you should have unfettered access to the person’s accounts and be able to pay off any outstanding debts through the estate.
What if I can’t find anything?
There might be cases when your loved one seems to have left no trace of bills or records, but don’t fret—they exist somewhere. As part of probate, you will likely be required to post a notice to creditors in a local newspaper, notifying them that your loved one has passed away and that they should come forward to make claims against the estate.
If you already know who the main creditors are, it may be worthwhile to contact them directly. Tell them your loved one has passed and you’re working through their estate. They’ll be happy to send you a statement of outstanding debts.
If you’re really struggling to grasp how, when, or what to pay, there are debt advisors who can help you.
If you’re really struggling to grasp how, when, or what to pay, there are debt advisors who can help you. They’ll suggest ways for you to deal with the debt—without passing judgement on you or your loved one.
While you look through your loved one’s paperwork and statements, make your own list of balances, creditors, and the type of debt that’s owed. If something new comes in from a creditor, add it to your list and see where it falls in terms of priority. Try to stay organized—it will help you in the long run as you tackle each individual sum down the line. Creditors might come off as aggressive and cold during this time of grief, but they’re usually willing to allow you time to sort through the estate in a timely manner. The key to dealing with debt is patience and staying calm.
You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.
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