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Are heirs responsible for credit card debts?

December 20, 2012: 6:30 AM ET

My elderly mother-in-law has several credit cards, two of which are being used by her granddaughters. The minimum is paid each month, but never the full balance. Will my wife, who will be the sole survivor of my mother-in-law's very small estate, be responsible for the credit card balances? — Craig P.

As an heir, your wife will not be liable for any outstanding credit card debt in the estate. But it also means that she may not receive much of an inheritance. "If there is money in the estate, then the estate has the responsibility to pay off any creditors," says April Hill, a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based elder law attorney. That process typically takes place in probate, or court-supervised administration of the estate.

So if your mother-in-law's estate runs out of money before the credit card balances are paid down, the responsibility for the debt won't land on your wife. Creditors cannot go after anyone who had no part in creating the debt, says Hill.

— Austin Kilham

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