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Death and debt: how being in the negative can haunt familes

Published: Thursday, Dec. 20 2012 3:04 p.m. MST

In this Oct. 6, 2011, file photo, Gan Golan of Los Angeles, dressed as the "Master of Degrees," holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt, during Occupy DC activities in Washington.

Jacquelyn Martin, AP

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Grieving the death of his son wasn't the only traumatic experience Francisco Reynoso dealt with four years ago — he was suddenly buried in student loan debt he inherited from his son, who died a few months after his college graduation, according to ProPublica.

Unfortunately, when someone dies, their debt doesn't necessarily go way. For Reynoso, some of his son's debts were let go when he died, however, the debts that Reynoso co-signed with his son remained, and it is difficult to tell just how much he owes.

Ready for Zero, a debt-eliminator blog, addresses what happens to debt when one dies.

"The good news is that you can’t inherit debt that isn’t yours," according to the article. "However, if you have a joint account with your deceased parent, which you have co-signed for, then you become responsible for that debt."

That is good news for people like Carole Brody Fleet, who was written about on Daily Finance. Carole had no co-signed debt with her husband, so when he died and she received a letter from a credit union informing her of an old account that her husband owned money on, she was angry.

Fortunately she understood she had no connection with this debt and wasn't bound legally to it.

"A lot of times, one of two things happens: A creditor doesn't know the law, or a creditor's trying to shake money out of people," said Robert Baker, director of education at nonprofit Housing and Credit Counseling Inc., to Daily Finance. "Some are more aggressive than others, and some will say anything to get survivors to send money."

These two situations and many more like them are what prompted the article by The Consumerist to give advice on avoiding situations like Reynoso.

"Before you cosign, you need to ask yourself whether or not you’ll be able to pay back the full amount of the debt in the case that something happens to the borrower," according to the article. "If the answer is no, then you probably shouldn’t cosign.”

EMAIL: alovell@deseretnews.com

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