If your estate is solvent when your ticker calls it quits (i.e. your assets are greater than your liabilities), your debt gets deducted from your estate and your heirs get what’s left over.
The executor of your estate will use your savings to pay off any debt before distributing the remaining assets to those named as beneficiaries in your will.
If your savings are insufficient, the executor may have to sell off some of your assets (including your car, stock accounts, or house) to make up the difference.
“Creditors always come before heirs,” says Mendels, noting that credit card companies, mortgage lenders and banks that are owed money get paid first. “All debts must be paid before the estate can distribute assets.”
Depending on your state laws, however, some assets may be excluded from probate — the process by which all claims against your estate get resolved after you die, says Frye.
That can include life insurance proceeds, retirement benefits and even real estate, if the surviving spouse’s name is listed on the mortgage as a co-owner.
In certain cases, such assets can be passed directly to the beneficiary named in the will, keeping those assets outside the estate and safe from hungry creditors. A probate attorney familiar with your state law can advise on specifics.
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