Beyond the Pale: When Debt Collectors Call Relatives of the Deceased

In today’s economy, many people find that they’re on the receiving end of debt collection calls. Even though economists have declared that the recession is over, regular people are still feeling the effects of high unemployment, low house values, and an ever-increasing mountain of bills. In the meantime, debt collection agencies have swooped in to try and put the squeeze on consumers, and often violate the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, a federal law that outlines what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable debt collection behavior.

Debt Collection Agencies

Although many people already think of debt collectors as thugs, the latest trend in the debt collection industry is beyond the pale. Some debt collection agencies have found a lucrative way to make even more money by harassing grieving relatives into paying the debts of the recently deceased. As unbelievable as this sounds, it happens all the time. Doing so is attractive to debt collection agencies because they can often rake in twice the fees that they charge for other types of debt collection. In the process, though, they often take advantage of those who are at their most vulnerable.

If you’ve recently lost a loved one and are receiving calls from debt collectors about your family member’s debts, there are several things you should know.

1. Debt collectors are taking the easy way out. When a person dies, their estate (which includes their assets) typically goes into probate. A creditor has the right to file a claim against the estate in order to get paid. When a debt collection agency tries to collect from relatives of the deceased, they’re trying to bypass the court system.

2. You’re not responsible for someone else’s debt. If a relative has passed away and his or her estate doesn’t have the assets to pay a debt, it’s not your responsibility. The creditor will typically write off the debt. When a debt collector calls and insinuates (or tells you outright) that you have to pay the debt, he’s breaking the law. If the deceased is your spouse, you may have some obligations, but those are likely limited by your state’s laws. Check with a probate attorney to get an accurate assessment of your liability.

3. Beware of fishing expeditions. Oftentimes, a debt collection agency will call relatives of the deceased in order to gather information. Do not provide addresses, social security numbers, or any other personal information about you, your relative, or the surviving spouse.

4. Don’t let debt collectors get away with harassment. If you’re on the receiving end of abusive debt collection calls, you do have recourse. While it’s difficult to deal with one more thing during a time of grief, it’s important to stand up for your rights. Contact a fair debt attorney, who can make the harassment stop and file suit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

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