Q: My 69-year-old brother passed away while living on the streets in California. He has no wife, no children, no property, no will, and some bills. Do I have a legal responsibility for his bills? I am his closest living relative but have had little contact with him due to where he lives and his lifestyle.
A: A decedent’s heirs are not liable for his or her debts. To the extent there are not sufficient assets to pay the debts, they are not paid.
Since your brother died in California, California law would apply but I’m confident it is similar to Idaho law.
The personal representative of the estate is also not personally liable for the debts of the decedent unless assets are improperly distributed to beneficiaries without settling with creditors.
In fact, there are some circumstances where the heirs receive assets ahead of the unsecured creditors.
The first of these preferential rights is the Homestead Allowance. Under the Idaho Homestead Allowance the decedent’s spouse, or minor or disabled children if there is no spouse, are entitled to $50,000 ahead of all creditors, except as to the secured creditors on a specific asset (such as the mortgage or deed of trust on a home).
The second Idaho preference is Exempt Property. This consists of “Tangible Personal Property” including but not limited to household furniture, automobiles, furnishings, appliances, family heirlooms, and personal effects. Up to $10,000 in value of these assets goes to the surviving spouse, but if there is no surviving spouse it goes to the decedent’s children jointly. This differs from the Homestead Allowance, which is only available to minor and disabled children if there is no spouse.
These allowances must be claimed in the same manner as a creditor claim within the statutory creditor notice period, which is four months from the first publication of the probate Notice to Creditors in the newspaper or, if there is no Notice to Creditors, three years after the decedent’s death.
Some unscrupulous creditors have been known to demand the children of the decedent pay his or her debts. This is not the law. If anyone tries to make that claim, they should be advised in no uncertain terms that this is not the case.