Whose debt is it?

You may have been asked to pay a bill that’s in the name of a partner, or told that you’re responsible for a debt because you are a relative of someone who has died. But it might not be your responsibility to pay this debt.

Check you are liable for a debt

Before you start negotiating with your creditors (the people you owe money to), you should check that you are liable for the debts. You may find you do not have to pay a bill you think you owe.

You are usually liable for a debt if you signed an agreement, for example for a credit card or loan, mobile phone contract, or gas supply.

You may also be liable to pay if you agreed to guarantee someone else’s loan.

Responsibility for a partner’s debts

Don’t assume that because you are married or in a civil partnership that you are always both responsible for each other’s debts.

If only one of you signed a credit card agreement, the debt doesn’t belong to the other person. This is the case even if they are an additional card holder and have helped to build up the debt.

If you both signed a credit agreement, you are jointly and severally liable. This means you are both responsible for the full amount.

You can both be held jointly and severally liable for a council tax bill for the place you live, even if the bill is in one name only.

Responsibility for debts after a death

If a credit agreement has been signed by only you, and nobody else, then responsibility for the debt is usually only yours.

After your death, your creditors may be able to recover money you owe to them by making a claim against your estate, if you have left behind any assets (such as money and property).

The person dealing with your estate may need to seek legal advice. Your creditors are not entitled to pursue your family members for payment from their own funds.

If you die but don’t have any assets, the debt is not recoverable. Family members should send a copy of the death certificate to your creditors.

Responsibilities of guarantors

If you agree to be a guarantor for someone else’s debt, you can be held liable for it if they fail to pay.

Always look carefully at the agreement you are thinking of signing and get help from a debt adviser if you are not sure what it covers.

Responsibility for old debts

You are responsible for old debts, but there are time limits for your creditors to take court action for debts such as credit cards, personal loans, store cards, catalogues, overdrafts, water, fuel, rent and council tax.

After a long period of time, your creditors or lenders are no longer able to recover the debts through the courts. This is called being ‘statute barred’.

The debts listed above usually become statute barred if during at least the last six years:

  • you haven’t made any payment towards the debt
  • you haven’t written to the creditor admitting that you owe the money, and
  • your creditor hasn’t pursued the debt through the county court.

Mortgage lenders have 12 years to try to recover a mortgage shortfall from you through the courts, and six years to recover interest owing.

Recovery of some debts is not statute barred, for example tax debts, benefits overpayments and social fund loans.

If the debt is statute barred, your creditor cannot obtain a county court judgment (CCJ) for the debt. However, the creditor can still pursue the debt in other ways, such as using a debt collection agency or sending threatening letters.

The ways that your creditor or lender can try to recover the debt have to be fair. Contact the Citizens Advice consumer helpline for further information.

Challenge a debt

In some circumstances you may need to challenge if you should really be held responsible for a loan. This may be the case, for example, if you were put under pressure by another person (for example by a partner) to sign a loan agreement against your wishes, or if you were misled by a lender when they persuaded you to take on a loan (for example they told you your home wouldn’t be affected and you agreed to a secured loan).

Get help from a debt adviser or other specialist legal advice if you are in this situation. Contact the Law Society for details of solicitors in your area who may be able to help.

For more advice about your responsibility to pay a debt, have a look at the Citizen’s Advice website.

Phone an adviser

If you have a housing problem, call our expert housing advice helpline
08000 495 495

Email an adviser

If you have a non-urgent problem and would like to speak to an advisor
email us

Did you find this helpful?

This page was last updated on: June 19, 2023

Shelter Cymru acknowledges the support of Shelter in allowing us to adapt their content. The information contained on this site is updated and maintained by Shelter Cymru and only gives general guidance on the law in Wales. It should not be regarded or relied upon as a complete or authoritative statement of the law.