You can't take your debt to the grave, but it can come back to haunt your loved ones after you've passed.
The ink on Michael Brooks' obituary had barely dried before page after page of unpaid bills started piling up for his partner to deal with.
"I just put a copy of the death certificate right in there with the bill, and mailed it right back to them," Barry Holcomb says.
There was little, if any, of Brooks' savings left after his battle with a long and painful debilitating disease.
"I was shocked when I was reviewing his medications with the hospice nurse and she said 'Oh yeah, that's $1,200 a bottle.' That was just one of about 14 medications he was on," Holcomb recalls.
Creditors and debt collectors have a right to the money they're owed, but according to the Fair Debt Collections Practice Act, family members also have rights.
To answer the question about who is responsible for debts after death, we took our questions to the Federal Trade Commission in Washington, D.C.
Medical, credit card and other bills are generally paid out of the estate of the deceased.
Generally, relatives or partners like Holcomb are not legally and certainly not morally responsible to make up the difference.
For spouses, most states have provisions that protect them from going penniless as a result of creditor payouts.
If the "past due" notices keep arriving in the mail and there's simply no money left to the estate, someone's not getting paid.
"Essentially, the creditor just has to eat that cost," says Tom Pahl, Assistant Director of the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Financial Practices.
Debt collectors have a right to talk to the spouse or the executor, but when the phone rings, the protection of the Fair Debt Collections Practice Act kicks in and prohibits collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices.
"They can't use obscenity, they can't call you a number of times to harass you, they can't threaten you with lawsuits or physical harm, " Pahl says. "All sorts of things like that are prohibited by Federal Statute."
The FTC says that if you're not the person creditors should be calling, don't offer up any personal information.
Instead, tell them who is in charge of the estate. They have a right to ask and know.
Hanging up or avoiding their calls can be more expensive for everyone in the long run.
"If the creditors or debt collectors can't figure out the right person to talk to, they may have no recourse except to essentially sue the estate to collect on the bill," Pahl warns.
If you are the responsible party, it's your right to ask a collector to verify a debt if you're not sure what the bill is for or if the amount is correct.
"On both sides, it's really a matter of being respectful and honest in your dealings, and that will make an already tough conversation go as well as possible," Pahl advises.
Before anyone can rest in peace, planning ahead is Pahl's best advice.
Appoint in advance a business-savvy relative, friend or attorney to responsibly manage your affairs.
By preparing for the process and understanding your rights and the creditors', you can often ease some of the hassle others will face after you are gone during their time of heartache.
If you think a collector has crossed the line, contact the FTC and the Attorney General's office in your state. They can bring suit against a creditor that violates the law.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the country's consumer protection agency.
The following information is from Documents & Resources for Small Businesses & Professionals:
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