Will The Dead Letter Office Get A Deceased Spouse’s Bills?

dead letter office wikipediaIn the old days, you would send a letter when you wanted to get in touch with someone. If your handwriting was particularly bad and the mail sorters couldn’t figure out where to send the mail, it would go to the dead letter office.

Lots of mail for actual dead people went there as well.

Letters are destroyed to protect customer privacy, and enclosed items of value are removed and sold at auction. They don’t do it as often as they used to, but the facilities still exist for postal auctions.

Why? Because the recipient is the owner of the valuables. Once sent, that owner cannot be found. Therefore, the items are technically without an owner.

What about when it comes to debts?

In New York, debts are contractual in nature. The person who signs for the credit card or personal loan is the one responsible for paying those debts, and nobody else. If I can’t pay my debts, the creditor will sue me – not my spouse.

Relatedly, New York is an equitable distribution state. That means what’s mine is mine, and the property my spouse owns belongs to her. The only way our legal interests intermingle is if we share ownership of property or have both become contractually liable on debts.

When someone dies, the situation gets a little tricky. All of the person’s property goes into an estate (think of it as a big bucket of stuff) – cars, houses, cash, trinkets, and bank accounts all go into the estate.

The estate representative takes the property, turns it into cash, and distributes it to the creditors. In that way, the estate pays the dead person’s debts. Any remaining debts cannot be enforced against the living.

If, however, there is no property then the estate is empty. The creditor cannot collect from the dead person nor from anyone else; therefore, the debts don’t get paid.

All of this is true only if the dead person didn’t have any cosignors or guarantors of his or her debts. And we’re not talking about repossession or foreclosure after death, either. Those are chats for another day.

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About the Author:

I've been a consumer protection lawyer since 1995, working to help people end their bill problems. I'm a faculty member at the Student Loan Law Workshop, a nationally recognized speaker, and a long-time member of both the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys and National Association of Consumer Advocates.