Let's start with falling home prices. The AARP found that between 2007 and 2011, "3.5 million loans held by people age 50 or older were underwater, 600,000 were in foreclosure, and another 625,000 were 90 or more days delinquent." And that doesn't include the 1.5 million seniors who lost their homes during that period.
Surprisingly, another source of distress for seniors is student loans. A shocking 2.2 million Americans age 60 or older have student loan debt, with an average balance of $19,521, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
When the going got tough, Grandma and Grandpa did what those of any age do -- turned to credit cards. But in their case, credit card debt has been a major factor in driving them to declare bankruptcy. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of people ages 65 to 74 seeking bankruptcy rose 178 percent. Even worse, among those 75 and older, the number seeking bankruptcy was up 567 percent!
In a paper analyzing the data from a Consumer Bankruptcy Project, law professor John Pottow writes that "the median elder debtor in bankruptcy carries fifty percent more credit card debt than the median younger filer."
And to top it all off, these folks have little to no savings: Two-thirds of those age 75 or older have absolutely nothing money left in their retirement accounts, and have little hope of finding a decent job to help them make ends meet.
So What Happens When Grandma's Gone?
While those elderly individuals who do file for bankruptcy won't leave behind massive debts, those who remain committed to paying down their bills -- but die before they successfully do so -- can place a burden on their heirs.
Luckily, most kinds of debt cannot legally be transferred to a deceased person's heirs. But that doesn't mean you're entirely immune to Grandma's bills.
Let's take a look at what happens to the major kinds of debt when an elderly relative passes on.
1. Mortgage. A mortgage is a secured loan: Simply put, there is collateral (the property) that guarantees the balance. As such, mortgages are not forgiven when a borrower passes away. They passes on to the deceased's estate. If the estate has enough cash to cover the remaining mortgage balance, it can be used to pay off the loan and the heirs can take ownership of the house. Or, you can assume the mortgage, i.e., put it in your name or leave it in the original owner's name, but continue to pay it normally. Or you can refinance. And of course, there's always the option of selling the house to repay the remaining balance of the loan.
But if the mortgage is upside down, you're not stuck; there are ways to walk away from a bad mortgage left to you by a relative.
2. Car loan. Car loans, too, are a form of secured debt. As such, an heir can, with consent of the lender, assume a car loan, or refinance it. Otherwise, you'll either need to use the estate's cash to pay off the car loan so the heirs can take ownership of the vehicle, or the car will need to be sold to repay the remainder of the debt.
3. Personal loan. Although theses debts are usually unsecured -- i.e., there was no collateral put up against the loan -- they do still pass on to the estate. The executor's primary responsibility is to use the estate's assets to satisfy the deceased's remaining debts. If the assets cannot completely cover all the remaining debts, the executor usually divides up the money, and pays each debtor an equal percentage of what they are owed.
5. Credit card. Like personal loans, if there are enough assets remaining in the estate to cover the debt, it must be applied to outstanding credit card debt. If there is no remaining money, the credit card company usually writes off the debt.
Of Course, It's Not Always That Simple
If any of the debt was incurred with a cosigner, the burden of debt typically falls entirely onto the other party who signed the loan.
What's more, different states treat debt differently. Certain states are community property states; in these, any assets accumulated during the duration of a marriage are considered joint assets and, in some cases, so are debts -- regardless of whether both parties signed the loan. Meaning if your estranged -- but not officially divorced -- spouse has an outstanding loan from the time you were married, it could still fall back onto you, regardless of your current relationship with them.
Also, not all of a deceased person's assets become part of the estate. IRAs, 401(k)s, brokerage accounts -- even life insurance payouts -- all pass through, untouched, to the designated beneficiaries. These amounts, therefore, are not taken into consideration when determining whether or not an estate has enough funds to satisfy their debts.
So What Can and Should You Do?
First, if you are the child or grandchild of someone whose finances seem to be in trouble, it's important that you discuss it with them. It's not always easy, but being open, honest, and working together to craft a plan now can save you countless hours of stress later -- and provide your loved one with the assurance that when they pass on, they aren't leaving you with an unpleasant burden.
Second, remind co-signers about any loans they are still listed on. It's also important to go through and update beneficiaries on those accounts that do directly pass through without becoming part of the estate.
Lastly, if you're over the age of 50, think twice about incurring new debt. It should be a last resort, an emergency-only option -- both for your own peace of mind as well as that of your loved ones.
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