Are my spouse and I morally or legally obligated to pay off a deceased parent's debts? My father-in-law passed away a few months ago with significant indebtedness. To complicate matters, he lived and died in a foreign country and I have no idea how that government handles a situation like this. More to the point, what does the Bible have to say about it? It might ruin us to try to pay his creditors, but we don't want to be disobedient if this is what the Lord is telling us to do.
Perhaps you can understand that there are certain details of your situation about which we simply are not qualified to comment. For example, we're not in a position to tell you whether you would be regarded as having a legal obligation to repay your father-in-law's debts in the foreign country where he lived and died. This is a question you may want to take up with an attorney.
The biblical aspects of the question are another matter - though even here we don't claim to have definitive, cut-and-dried answers for you. Here are some thoughts that might be relevant.
The apostle Paul indicates that Christians do have a responsibility to care for aging parents and loved ones while they are still alive (1 Timothy 5:3-16). Nevertheless, it is far from clear whether this includes assuming their post mortem debts.
Meanwhile, we may be able to cast some light on your situation by applying a principle drawn from Ezekiel's and Jeremiah's discussion of a very different but tangentially related topic-namely, the moral and spiritual debt each of us owes to God. "In those days they shall say no more: 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' But every one shall die for his own iniquity; every man who eats the sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge" (Jeremiah 31:29, 30; see also Ezekiel 18:1-18). On the basis of this passage of Scripture, we might possibly conclude that there is no biblical basis whatsoever for holding a child accountable for any obligation the parent may have incurred. Then again, this could be stretching a point.
It's possible, of course, that a Christian might elect to pay off a parent's debts simply as an expression of love and goodwill. But that's entirely a matter of individual choice. If your own financial situation is as tight as you've indicated, this probably isn't an advisable option in your case.
For more information or another perspective on your dilemma, you may wish to contact Crown Financial Ministries at the following address: Crown Financial Ministries, 1035 Old Peachtree Road Northwest, Lawrenceville, GA 30043-3309. The phone numbers are (770) 534-1000 (local) and (800) 722-1976 (toll-free). You can email the ministry at firstname.lastname@example.org, and the website is crown.org.
You can also call and discuss your question with a member of our staff if you think this might be helpful. Contact Focus on the Family's Counseling department for a free consultation.
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Complete Guide to Faith-Based Family Finances
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Money and Finances