The Wall Street Journal
FEBRUARY 18, 2011

Q. My mother died recently and I am her only heir. She didn’t have very much money—barely enough to pay for the funeral—but she did have a modest house that was paid up. Given the poor real estate market, I don’t want to sell it right now. It’s also pretty messy, and I will need time to sort through her things and clean everything up,

However, she had $18,000 in credit card debt and ran up more than $50,000 in medical bills when she died. I am her executor, but don’t have that sort of money. I am worried that debt collectors will start hounding me. The stress, on top of my grief for my mother, is ripping me up. Please tell me what to do.

–St. Paul, Minn.

A. First, please accept my sympathies for your loss. I hope you have supportive people around you to help you deal with the emotional concerns you are facing. For the practical issues, you’d be wise to turn to professionals for guidance, such as an attorney experienced in probate issues or the trust department of your bank.

Since the duties of an executor are often overwhelming, and most people don’t have any experience handling probate issues, it is often a good idea to name the professional as a co-executor. The professional can then take care of all the details, which include filing the will with the court so probate can begin; notifying the Social Security administration and other companies your mother had accounts with; paying creditors; filing taxes; collecting any outstanding debts; canceling your mother’s credit cards, driver’s license, insurance policies; and distributing assets as the will directs. You, however, will still have to sign off on and be legally responsible for any decisions made.

You are not personally liable for any of your mother’s debts, unless you co-signed the loans; jointly owned a credit card account with her, or otherwise accepted responsibility for them (for instance, by signing a form when your mother entered the hospital). If creditors ever hound you for payment, do not give out any personal information, and send each one a certified letter requesting that they stop.

However, your mother’s estate must pay her debts, which include funeral expenses, costs associated with her medical treatment, executor administrative costs and taxes. State law determines the order of disbursement, as well as whether a house must be sold to pay off debts. Fortunately for you, in Minnesota, creditors of the deceased can’t touch a house, one car and up to $10,000 worth of personal effects. If you are the direct beneficiary of a life insurance policy, this also won’t be considered part of the estate.

As for that messy house, as you are cleaning keep an eye out for valuables like jewelry; stamp and coin collections; stock and bond certificates; and antique furniture. All of these assets become part of your mother’s estate and can be sold to help settle her bills.

Write to June Fletcher at