Debt Collectors & Deceased Debt
Just like debt collectors who collect from people who are alive, debt collection agencies that collect deceased debt must follow the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has clarified what is and isn’t allowed under the FDCPA when it comes to deceased debt collection.
Although the FDCPA says that debt collectors can’t speak to anyone other than the consumer about a debt that’s in collection, in the case of someone who has passed away, the FTC says that debt collectors can discuss the person’s debt with the executor of the estate (the person appointed to implement the deceased person’s will), the person’s spouse, the administrator of the estate, or anyone else that is authorized to pay the deceased person’s debts. If a child passes away, a debt collector may discuss the debt with the child’s parents or guardian.
Aside from the people outlined above, a debt collector may only contact others in order to get contact information for the person administering the estate. So, for example, a debt collector may call a family member to find out the name of the attorney who is the executor of the will. Similarly, a debt collection agency may contact a neighbor to obtain contact information for a surviving spouse. However, the FDCPA applies, in that the debt collector can’t discuss the debt with the person they’re calling; they can only ask for contact information. Moreover, the debt collector can only contact the third party once, unless he has reason to believe that the person subsequently has more accurate information.
In a similar vein, the FTC determined that a debt collection agency may only refer to outstanding bills in general terms in letters addressed to “the Estate of XXX” or “the Executor or Administrator of the Estate of XXX.” Because these types of letters are “location communication,” rather than a specific request to a specific person, and because several different people open up the mail in order to be helpful, the FTC says that letters not addressed to a specific individual may not include specific information about the debt.
It’s important to note that other provisions of the FDCPA apply to deceased debt. For example, a debt collector can’t harass or threaten the person they’re calling, can’t call excessively, and can’t use abusive language. The FTC specifically addressed the provision of the FDCPA that prevents debt collectors from calling at “any unusual time or place or at a time or place known or which should be known to be inconvenient to the consumer.” The FTC says, “Depending on the circumstances, contacting survivors about a debt shortly after the debtor dies may be unusual, inconvenient, or both.” In other words, if a debt collector repeatedly calls a family member in the midst of bereavement, it could be a violation of the FDCPA
In addition, a debt collection agency can’t mislead people into thinking that they are personally liable for the debt of the deceased. For example, a debt collector can’t call the family member administering the estate and tell that person that, if the estate doesn’t have the money to pay the debt, then the individual is responsible for paying. The FTC suggests two possible approaches that collectors of deceased debt can take in speaking to survivors; one is to specify that the collector is seeking payment from the deceased person’s estate; the other is to tell the person that they aren’t required to use their own assets or jointly held assets to pay the debt.
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