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Is A Surviving Spouse Liable For A Deceased Spouse’s Debts Under California Law?

After the loss of a spouse, the stress of dealing with the deceased spouse’s debts is the last thing that a California surviving spouse wants to deal with.  The estate of a California decedent is generally liable for decedent’s debts.  But what if there is no estate?  Can a California surviving spouse be held liable for a deceased spouse’s debt?

Am I Liable For My Spouse’s Debts Under California Law?

A California surviving spouse can be held liable for a deceased spouse’s debt – but there are some exceptions and limitations that limit the surviving spouse’s exposure and liability.

The California Probate Code addresses a surviving spouse’s liability for debts of deceased spouse in cases were there is no probate estate opened.  The California Probate Code makes surviving spouses personally liable for a deceased spouse’s debts chargeable to both halves of the community property plus the deceased spouse’s separate property that passed to the surviving spouse without administration.

The California Supreme Court, in Collection Bureau of San Jose v. Rumsey, explained the applicable provisions of the California Probate Code that apply with a surviving spouse succeeds to a deceased spouse’s property without administration, stating:

Subject to certain exceptions and limitations, Probate Code sections 13550 and 13551 make a surviving spouse personally liable for the debts of the deceased spouse, but only to the extent such debts are chargeable against the community property of both spouses and the separate property of the deceased spouse passing to the surviving spouse without formal probate administration.

Probate Code section 13550 provides: “Except as provided in Sections 11446, 13552, 13553, and 13554, upon the death of a married person, the surviving spouse is personally liable for the debts of the deceased spouse chargeable against the property described in Section 13551 to the extent provided in Section 13551.”

Probate Code section 13551 in turn delineates the sources from which the surviving spouse’s liability may be satisfied, as follows: “The liability imposed by Section 13550 shall not exceed the fair market value at the date of the decedent’s death, less the amount of any liens and encumbrances, of the total of the following: [¶] (a) The portion of the one-half of the community and quasi-community property belonging to the surviving spouse under Sections 100 and 101 that is not exempt from enforcement of a money judgment and is not administered in the estate of the deceased spouse. [¶] (b) The portion of the one-half of the community and quasi-community property belonging to the decedent under Sections 100 and 101 that passes to the surviving spouse without administration. [¶] (c) The separate property of the decedent that passes to the surviving spouse without administration.”

Probate Code section 13554 then clarifies that these debts may be enforced against the surviving spouse in the same manner as they could have been enforced against the deceased spouse if he or she had not died.

 

See Cal. Prob. Code §§ 13550 and 13551, and Cal. Prob. Code § 13554.

In plain English, a California surviving spouse can be personally liable for debts of the deceased spouse, only to the extent that the debts are chargeable against the community property of both spouses, and the separate property of the deceased spouse passing to the surviving spouse without formal probate administration.

If administration of the estate is commenced, the rules that apply to creditor claims in California probate control.

What Is The Statute Of Limitations To Pursue Decedent’s Debt Against A Surviving Spouse?

One year. Section 13554 of the California Probate Code states that “Section 366.2 of the Code of Civil Procedure applies in an action under this section.”

Section 366.2 of the Code of Civil Procedure bars actions for breach of contract brought more than one year after the death of a contracting party.

If you are a surviving spouse being pursued for debts of your deceased spouse, a California probate lawyer can help.  Do not automatically assume that you are responsible for paying the debt of your deceased spouse.

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San Diego

Merwyn J. Miller

Los Angeles County

Stewart J. Levin

Orange County

Priscilla Madrid

Ventura County

Naomi Stal

San Mateo County

Sally Bergman

San Bernardino County

Fred W. Edwards

Stanislaus County (Modesto)

Thomas Bonte

Santa Clara County

Nicholas P. Jellins