Disclaimer--I'm a lawyer in Florida only and nothing in this post or any other post constitutes legal advice; if you have legal questions, please reach out to a local lawyer or contact me for assistance in finding one. The information in this article is based on my personal experiences.
With that said, I've encountered several different people living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) lately talking about paying off their debts before they die in order to leave a legacy for their families of assets and not debt. I've also been working with several widowers to handle the estates of their wives who were murdered by MBC. With all of the people I talk to, debt figures into the conversation a great deal, especially as many of us carry a lot of debt.
As a lawyer, I'm passionate about people understanding their rights and responsibilities generally as well as understanding what they can and can't do legally. As many have said, knowledge is indeed power. So, without giving legal advice since I don't know the specifics of each reader's financial picture and their location, I'd like to sketch out a few things about debt and living with MBC.
Debt with metastatic breast cancer
- First of all, generally, if you as an individual haven't signed or co-signed for a debt, you don't have an obligation to pay that debt. Where this often comes into play is when a debt is in the name of one spouse and that spouse dies. Creditors will often attempt to convince the surviving spouse to take responsibility and pay that debt. Generally (some states could differ and specific behavior may count), you have to agree to take on debt before being responsible for it. If you are a surviving spouse, check and double-check before you pay anything. If you are a terminal patient, make sure you research whether a debt will survive after your death before making it a priority to pay off debt before you die. Again, generally, debt does not survive after the death of a debtor.
- Secondly, if you have a terminal illness like MBC, you may be entitled to discharge that debt. For instance, I had some remaining student loan debt from graduate school. Since I'd been able to consolidate the debt from school at an opportune time, I had a super low-interest rate and we'd simply not prioritized paying it off. When I was diagnosed, my husband began to look at ways to pay off the debt, but because I knew he wouldn't be responsible for the debt after I died, I didn't support paying it off. Since my student loans were guaranteed through the federal government, I qualified to discharge them. It's a huge load off of me knowing that the debt is gone and won't be an issue for my family.
- Third, even if you aren't entitled to discharge a debt, if you tell the creditor that you are terminal, most creditors are quite well aware that the debt will be extinguished upon your death and will be very motivated to work something out. This could mean a small payment plan or a reduction in the total amount. As my dad always used to say, you do not have because you do not ask. Asking for a reduction in the debt or a payment plan is a good step if there is a debt you need to be adjusted. As an aside, I've not seen a debt consolidation company that was worth using because of all the fees, but if any of you reading this article knows of one, please feel free to comment below!
- Fourth, the Fair Debt Collections Act is federal and applies to all creditors and collection agencies who might be contacting you. Under the Act, if you as the debtor tell a creditor that you dispute the debt (with or without details as to why), they have to stop hassling you. Collection agencies especially can be extremely aggressive and mean. Calmly tell them to stop calling you, that you object or dispute the debt and if they call again, contact your local or state debtor association because the creditor will owe a substantial fine (usually $1,000.00 per violation).
- Fifth, many of us have medical debt from surprise or balance billing. This is when a medical provider who is not covered on your insurance provides services to you as a patient. Surprise or balance billing can occur whether you are inpatient or outpatient. Each state has different laws, so be sure to know what your state has done to protect patients. For instance, here in Florida, if a current provider covered on your insurance plan involves a provider who is not covered on a patient's insurance without consultation with the patent, the patient isn't obligated to pay the debt. There are lawyers who make their living off of suing the companies who send surprise or balance bills and are paid by those violators - thus, free to patients./li>
Bottom line? Know your rights. Know what laws apply to your financial issue. Know your remedies. Know what your responsibilities are and stick with them only. Know who to ask if you have a question.
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