My daughter asked me this question while having dinner at her house. It started with me complaining about how some of my boomer friends were living beyond their means and had mountains of debt. I had to reassure her that we were not in that situation. (It is not uncommon that your family dinner conversations included some financial topics)
I explained that she and her brother had nothing to worry about. Children are not responsible for any debts belonging to their parents.
Generally, the estate pays off debts, as long as there’s enough money in an estate to pay them all off. Any remaining money goes to beneficiaries. There is an order to how debts must be repaid. Funeral expenses, income & estate taxes and secured debts are the top. Unsecured debts, such as credit cards, lines of credit are near the bottom. If the estate does not have enough money to pay back all the debt, creditors are out of luck.
Remember that jewelry, antiques and other valuables must all be added to the total value of the estate. You might be forced to sell some of them in order to pay back creditors. Very important, the executor of the will could be liable if he or she pays money out to the beneficiaries from the estate before all the debts are settled, creditors could make a claim against the executor personally.
Creditors could also go after an individual’s retirement account and proceeds from a life insurance policy if no person is named as beneficiary. Those funds would automatically be included into the total value of the estate. However, in Canada, retirement accounts can to transferred tax-free to the surviving spouse.
Joint ownership or loans that have been co-signed are different. You will be responsible to pay them back. You don’t inherit your parents’ or your children’s debts unless you guaranteed them.
It is very important for young people to check their own credit report periodically to make sure you are not still holding debt for someone who isn’t in your life anymore. Credit cards that you have co-signed years back may still be active and you could be also on the hook for apartment leases even if you moved out.
Estate laws vary depending upon where you live and can be very complex. Get some good legal advice, talk to a tax specialist and pick a knowledgeable executor. You can’t take it with you! However, avoid giving it to the tax man and leave something to your love ones instead.