Are there any countries in the world where the debts of the deceased must be inherited by the deceased's heirs?

In the UK and USA, it seems to be well understood that if the deceased's estate is insufficient to cover any outstanding debts, then those debts are written off once the estate is exhausted; the heirs do not take on any further liability for them. Any discussion of the topic seems to revolve around potential continuation of debts shared via joint credit cards or mortgages, but that's not the sort of thing I'm looking for.

Elsewhere, there seem to be places where things are a little less straightforward. For example, in Poland there seemed to be some quirk in the law which allowed heirs to become unwittingly liable for debts in excess of any assets - see this story, for example - but the law was changed in 2016 to limit the impact. And in Japan, as I understand it (source), inheritors must consent to take on any debts in addition to assets; but as inheritances can be renounced noone is forced to take on debts in excess of assets.

Are there countries where heirs have no choice but to take on full liability for the debts of their ancestors? (If not, has it always been so, or have things been different in the past?)

Update: a bit more googling around found me this (from Slavery International):

Bonded labour is most widespread in South Asian countries such as India and Pakistan. Often entire families have to work to pay off the debt taken by one of its members. Sometimes, the debt can be passed down the generations and children can be held in debt bondage because of a loan their parents had taken decades ago.

Which seems an example of the sort of issue I'm thinking of. However, wikipedia claims

In 1976, Indira Gandhi and the Indian government passed the Bonded Labor System Act of 1976 which released bonded laborers and stated that the practice of debt bondage in India was no longer allowed.

so I'm not sure I can count that, at least not in India (even if, in practice, it still happens, due to custom or coercion). Anywhere where this sort of intergenerational debt bondage still happens and is still unequivocally legal would be certainly be of interest though.

  • 3
    I recall a story about an average-wealth person who inherited a Lloyds of London "Name" from her grandfather, who was then bankrupted by Lloyd's terrible decade in the 1990s, but unlimited liability is more of a weird technicality that is attached to that asset, rather than a blanket case of estate law. nytimes.com/1993/04/27/business/…
    – user662852
    Jun 14, 2020 at 22:26
  • law.stackexchange.com
    – Flux
    Aug 29, 2020 at 15:33
  • On Law Stack Exchange: What happens to debts when someone dies?
    – Flux
    Aug 29, 2020 at 15:36
  • Half of this question should be on Law.SE (where it's a duplicate), and half goes on History.SE.
    – RonJohn
    Dec 27, 2020 at 21:39

3 Answers 3


TECHNICALLY, there is such a thing as Filial Responsibility laws, that essentially put a child on the hook for a parent's debt (if that debt is due to covering the parent's needs in housing, medicine, etc. and they are unable to pay for these). I say "technically" because, even though these laws are on the books, they are almost never enforced.


In France, as stated on the government’s page here : https://www.service-public.fr/particuliers/vosdroits/F21571, you have the option of declining the inheritance. You also have an option to accept only the net assets !

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    "accept only the net assets" is what happens in the US: the estate pays as much debt as possible, and the heirs get what's left over (if any).
    – RonJohn
    Jan 5, 2021 at 15:28

It's not a full answer, and I'll try to research this more later to give a more comprehensive answer, but. As far as I know, in some EU countries, and at least in Romania, if you accept the inheritance, you are liable for the debts, even if they go higher than the estate.

Of course, you always have the option to refuse the inheritance altogether and there is no option to partially accept the inheritance. You have the right to know what you inherit though, so both what you get and what you owe are made known to you. This may make sense in some cases where the 2 are more or less equal, but what you get is either sentimental, or strategically important for you in particular.

Update: Still not a comprehensive answer, but an issue was raise in the comments that such a system is prone to fraud because the debt could be given through will to person A, who can refuse the debt, and the rest of the inheritance to persons B-Z. This issue is moot, because the inheritance is all done at once among all those who accept the inheritance, which in this case it would be persons B-Z. First, persons B-Z get whatever it says in the will, if there is one, and the rest is split according to the law. This means that persons B-Z would also inherit the debt, which was refused by person A.

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    This would seem to be weird. What's to stop me leaving my assets to my children and my debts to somebody else, who will of course decline them. What's to stop me taking out a huge loan just before I do that, giving my children a nice bonus and writing off the debt? Dec 27, 2020 at 20:47
  • @DJClayworth some sort of clawback provisions?
    – RonJohn
    Jan 5, 2021 at 15:26
  • @DJClayworth You could attempt to do that, but the inheritance is done all at once. If the person receiving the debt declines, then that debt will be naturally inherited by all the other inheritors. Law takes precedence over any inheritance will.
    – Andrei
    Jan 5, 2021 at 17:17
  • @RonJohn I am not sure what a clawback provision is, but thanks to the notification from your comment, I remembered to answer DJClayworth . Please see my other comment about how the issue DJClayworth raised is easily solved by law.
    – Andrei
    Jan 5, 2021 at 17:19
  • 1
    You're right: I meant "Therefore, the creditors are screwed", since they loaned a lot of money, the children have the money via gifts, and now they are refusing the inheritance.
    – RonJohn
    Jan 5, 2021 at 18:20

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