Dear Family Advisor

Should I be responsible for my father's funeral bill when he never paid child support for me?

Last updated:

July 28, 2008

My parents have been divorced for more than 20 years. My father remarried and was still living with his second wife when he passed away recently. His wife says that his kids are responsible for his funeral bill. But he never even paid any child support to our mother to help out when he left. Who should be responsible for his funeral expenses, his kids (all over age 35) or his second wife?

Your father's wife is misinformed. His estate is responsible for the medical bills and funeral expenses. And in terms of your emotional well-being, paying for your father's funeral expenses won't repair your relationship with him -- or prove that you're a good person. So don't fall for this if she implies that that's the case.

Here's how the billing works: Creditors make their claims against the estate and the estate pays what it can. If there's no money in the estate, or the funds have all been paid out, creditors seek payments from insurance companies and/or Medicare. Assuming you had no joint accounts with your father (such as a checking account or a loan you signed for), you shouldn't be responsible for any of his debts, including the funeral expenses.

It sounds like your dad's wife may simply be looking to get out of paying this expense. She probably also believes that she's right, and I'm guessing that she doesn't have the money to pay the funeral bills.

Depending on your relationship with her, you may choose to let her know this in writing. If you prefer to do it in person and you're concerned that she'll put up an argument, bring along your spouse, partner, or close friend -- someone who is not emotionally attached and can make sure that you stay calm and don't get sucked into a charged situation. There's no need to get into an argument about it -- it's simply a fact. So just calmly let her know that. You might suggest that she contact a probate attorney if the bills are excessive and there's nothing she could sell to pay for them.

I'm sure this situation has kicked up some difficult issues for you. It's hurtful to have a parent who wasn't there for you when you needed (and deserved) his support. It's even more hurtful when this person wants, demands, or needs something from you later. You can't muster up emotions that may have been permanently severed.

I understand this on a personal level because I was adopted and had loving adoptive parents. Later in life, I met my birth father. He was addicted to gambling and alcohol, and his life choices were largely responsible for why our family fell apart. I simply couldn't feel the love and connection for him that I held for my adoptive parents. I understood intellectually that he had an addiction and that this ravaged his life as well as ours, and I cared about him, but I couldn't change my heart. I had to accept this.

I don't know whether your father's wife is trying to make you feel guilty about this or suggesting that it was your father's idea that you pay the funeral expenses, but if she is, don't let her.

Once this situation is worked out, you can put it behind you and move on to resolve any lingering resentments you may have about your father. There's no reason to get mad and hurt at him all over again because of this. The more you can let go of past hurts, the healthier and happier you'll be, so do it for purely selfish reasons. He may not have been the father you longed for, but now that he's gone, there's a new opportunity for healing -- or, at least, for some level of peace and acceptance.