What happens to my debts when I die?

I’m getting up there in age, and I still owe a lot of money. Will my family members be burdened by my debts once I’m gone?



Vancouver, BC

The simple answer is no. The debts you run up during your lifetime don’t automatically transfer to your heirs when you pass away. Generally, they fall to your estate. But your debts must be paid from the estate’s assets before anything can be distributed to heirs. (If your debts are more than your assets, this means your heirs will likely be left with nothing.)

Often, collection agencies make the surviving spouse feel as if it’s their personal responsibility to pay off their loved one’s debt. That’s generally not the case. 

There are some exceptions. Some types of debt pass directly to someone else when you die. For example, say you share a joint credit card account with your spouse. Usually, on your death your spouse becomes responsible for any amount owing on the account. Another example: if someone co-signed a loan with you, the creditor could demand payment from them if you pass away with the loan still outstanding.

If you’re struggling to pay off your debts, these pages on getting out of debt offer options and tips to consider. After you pass away, your loved ones can look to guidance on dealing with debt collectors for steps to take if a collector is using shady tactics.

Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith

Retired lawyer and consultant
  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed for legal accuracy in December 2021

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