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Is the wife responsible for bills after a husband's death?

A husband's death is sad enough, but the widow's grief and stress may be compounded if creditors come after her for money owed by her late spouse.

In some cases, such as community property states or joint accounts, the wife must pay the outstanding debt.

There are exceptions, however, including accounts solely in the husband's name. Laws vary by state, so check with a certified accountant if you are unsure about your responsibilities.

Individual vs. Joint Accounts

With joint accounts, both spouses are equally responsible for paying off the debt. After a husband's death, the wife still has a legal obligation to the entire remaining balance. This includes debt such as cosigned mortgages and joint credit cards where both spouses are listed as account holders.

With individual accounts, however, only the person who signed the paperwork is generally responsible for the outstanding balance.

This means that even if the wife was an authorised user of a credit card, she likely will not have the pay the remaining balance after his death. However, in some states, credit card companies are allowed to demand payment from the wife on family support expenses, such as food, utilities and so on.

Community Property States

Community property laws means that all income and debt either spouse generates is shared equally.

Any account your husband opened is considered your debt as well, even if you never signed paperwork, in a community property state. You are therefore responsible for his bills after he dies.

Nine U.S. states -- Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin -- have community property laws as of 2010. Couples in Alaska can opt into a community property arrangement.

Secured Loans

Secured loans are loans granted with collateral.

For example, a car loan or mortgage are secured by the tangible object the loan is applied to. If your husband had an individual secured loan, you may not be responsible for his debt. However, the lending institution can take action such as foreclosure or repossession to recoup its losses.

Probating the Will

After a death, the deceased's will be probated -- a process of authentication, determining assets and paying off debts.

Bills that must be paid will come from the assets, so a widow will not necessarily have to pay out-of-pocket for her late husband's expenses. If the estate runs out of money before all lenders are repaid, the wife generally is not responsible unless she cosigned the account or lives in a community property state.