Dear Liz: My father recently died and did not have a will or living trust. He has a joint mortgage with my mother and two car loans under his name only. Can we just keep paying all the loans even though he is no longer around? And if we do, when the debts are paid, who gets ownership? Lastly, should we call all of his creditors and let them know he has died? Please help, we are in dire need of advice.
Answer: Every state has rules that determine who gets what if someone dies intestate — without a will or trust. The court process where this is sorted out is called probate, and the surviving spouse is typically the executor or person responsible for settling debts and distributing assets. Mortgages and car loans stay with the property that secures them, which means whoever inherits the asset inherits the debt, according to attorney Mary Randolph, author of “The Executor’s Guide.”
If your dad’s estate was small — less than $500,000 — you or your mother may be able to handle the probate process with the help of an accountant. If his estate was larger or you feel you need more help, contact a probate attorney, who can help you get the process started and advise you about your state’s laws. And yes, your mom will need to notify creditors as well as any sources of income your dad may have had, such as employers, Social Security or a pension.