Dear Liza: My brother died recently. He owned community property with his Wife. Is she now responsible for his debts?
Most likely, yes. In community property states, debts incurred during the marriage are the responsibility of the community. So, after the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse is liable for those debts. I can’t tell from the question whether or not your brother lived in a community property state, or in a state with common law rules, and signed an agreement making their property community. If so, it depends on what that Agreement actually says–sometimes Agreements specifically keep debt separate.
The community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. (In Alaska, spouses can sign an agreement making their assets community property, but few people choose to do this.) The common law states are everywhere else. Nolo has a great article on this: “Debt and Marriage.” Here’s a helpful excerpt :
In states that follow “common law” property rules, debts incurred by one spouse are usually that spouse’s debts alone, unless the debt was for a family necessity, such as food or shelter for the family or tuition for the kids. (These are general rules; some states have subtle variations in how they treat joint and separate debts.)