Q&A: One spouse’s debts might haunt the other after death

Dear Liz: I have a terminal illness and have less than a year to live. My wife and I are in our 80s and don’t own anything: no cars, no homes. My wife has an IRA worth $140,000 that pays us $2,000 a month, and she has a small pension of $1,400 a month. We receive $3,900 from Social Security, for a total monthly income of $7,200.

We have $72,000 in credit card debt that is strangling us. I told my wife that after I’m gone she should simply ignore that debt and advise creditors that I have passed away. Or should we attempt to file bankruptcy now?

Answer: Your return address shows you live in California, which is a community property state. Debts incurred during marriage are generally considered joint debts, so expecting creditors to go away after your death is not realistic.

Your wife’s retirement also could be at risk because California has limited creditor protection for IRAs. Federal law protects IRAs worth up to $1,283,025 in bankruptcy court, but outside bankruptcy, creditor protection depends on state law. In California, only amounts “necessary for support” are protected.

You really need to consult with a bankruptcy attorney to discuss your options. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

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