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Is My Family Responsible for My Debts?

Here's what you need to know before you borrow or buy on credit

Handling Debt Collectors
Even if you're not legally obligated to pay a loved one's debts, it doesn't mean you or your family members won't get calls from collection agencies saying you should pay the money.

If you find that a debt collection agency is harassing family members or breaking the law, write a "Cease and Desist" letter, or have an attorney write one on your behalf. This letter essentially demands that a creditor stop contacting you or your relatives.

If necessary, be prepared to file complaints against abusive collection agencies. Debt collectors aren't allowed to harass you or your family members about outstanding debts. They are also not allowed to call during certain times of day, and are prohibited from calling you at work if you indicate you are not allowed to receive calls.

Your relatives shouldn't have to deal with debt collectors trying to contact you. And under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), creditors aren't even supposed to talk to your relatives, friends or neighbors about your debts.

So what should you do if a debt collector calls demanding payment for a loved one's bills?

"My best advice is not to make any commitments on the telephone when a collection call comes in, but to check with a nonprofit credit counseling organization, experts at AARP, or even with the Federal Trade Commission, which has published excellent consumer alerts on the topic," says Etta Money, president of InCharge Debt Solutions, a nonprofit organization that provides free credit counseling to consumers.

In one of its consumer alerts, the FTC warns consumers not to give their own personal data — such as bank account information or Social Security numbers — to debt collectors who call claiming that a deceased relative owes money. Some callers could be scammers who've been trolling the obituaries and looking for opportunities to commit identity theft.

Next: What happens to your debt after you die? >>

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