Please check out the link to an interview with me by Sally Herigstad, CPA, a columnist at www.creditcards.com about the rights and responsibilities of surviving spouses concerning the debts of the deceased spouse.
These responsibilities are dictated both by the terms of the contract and by assorted state and federal laws. For example, under Massachusetts law, the only debts which are solely in the name of the deceased spouse that the surviving spouse must cover are medical bills — all the other debts are presumed to be the responsibility of the decedent's estate. This surprised Sally, a resident of the state of Washington, who told me that under her state's community property law, the survivor inherits all debts. I also noted that if the mortgage is solely in the dead spouse's name, a particular federal law called the Garn-St. Germain Act allows the surviving spouse to assume the mortgage if she inherits the house. Of course, debts which the couple entered into together live on, as do debts which the survivor voluntarily assumes.
Thus, it's important for surviving spouses to meet with an experienced probate attorney to review the decedent's bills — at least in Massachusetts, there may be some debts that the survivor may not need to pay.