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Are Children Responsible for Their Parents' Debts?

In a 2006 column for SmartMoney.com, Stacy L. Bradford was asked whether children can become responsible for a deceased parent's debts. Bradford consulted with ElderLawAnswers member Bernard A. Krooks, who is also a past president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Mr. Krooks advised that children aren't on the hook for their dead parents' unpaid bills. But he noted that our debts outlive us, hanging around until the estate pays them off. Only then can the remaining assets, if any, be distributed to the heirs.

To avoid this, some families begin giving valuable assets like jewelry to children before death. But this carries the risk that the gifts could be viewed by creditors as a "fraudulent conveyance" designed to shake the creditors. "If the creditor wants to be aggressive, it can ask [the gift recipient] to give it back," Krooks says. If the money or other assets are given away before creditors are satisfied, the estate's executor becomes personally responsible for making good on those obligations. Krooks goes on to offer advice on strategies for dealing with a parent's debts.