A person that owes me money died. What can I do to collect on this debt?

By Arizona Lawyer Julie LaBenz

Jack works hard and takes pride in his painting business.  Even though he should always demand payment in full upfront, he often agrees to a payment plan.  Sometimes customers get behind and he has to hustle to collect the debt.

Recently, Jack was hired for a relatively big project.  He was to paint both the interior and exterior of three properties owned by an elderly woman named Ester.

Jack quickly learned Esther was a tough negotiator.  He ended up agreeing to her paying the majority of the contract price upon completion of the project.

Yet, when Jack was about two-thirds of the way through the job, Esther passed away.

Ester’s passing put Jack in a difficult and unexpected position.  All he had was questions.  Should he finish the project?  Who would issue the final payment to him now that Esther was gone?  Who should he talk to about all this?  How long would it take to sort this out?  Does he need the help of a lawyer?

Jack decided to leave his card at the properties with a written note asking the family members to contact him.  Within a week or so he got a call from Timothy, Esther’s son.

It was a bit of an awkward conversation I mean Timothy’s mother had just passed away so it felt uncomfortable to push too hard for payment on the contract or to put pressure on Timothy to make immediate decisions about what to.

When Jack asked Timothy if he should finish up the project, Timothy didn’t know how to respond.  He said he needed to think about it and also needed to talk to other people involved in the estate and that he just didn’t know what to do. Of course Jack really didn’t want to pressure him, given the situation, yet Jack desperately needed this project to wrap up and to get paid in full for he work performed.

What legal information would benefit Jack at this time?

  1. Understand it will likely take time to get paid.

  time and money

Whether Ester had an estate plan and, if so, the type of estate plan she had along with the pace the family members move at, all play a role in the amount of time it will take for Jack to get paid out of Ester’s funds.

Often, when someone passes away, an element of chaos unfolds.  As a result, sometimes it can take time to sort things through, figure out who’s in charge and get needed court orders.

  1. Keep in mind that he may not get paid in full and could face factual disagreements with the family members.


Once a person obtains the legal authority to transact with the deceased person’s money, often, rather than pay each creditor in full, the estate or trust makes offers to settle debts for lesser amounts.

In Jack’s situation, he could face questions about the quality of his work or the terms of the contract that were non-issues when he worked with Ester.  Additionally, the family members could offer to pay less than the amount demanded by Jack, claiming Ester’s accounts were drained paying other expenses or claiming that the quality of work is somehow substandard.

  1. Understand strict time periods can come into play and, if ignored, can result in loss of the ability to collect the money owed.  Jack should immediately consult a lawyer about how these time periods apply in his case and what steps to take to preserve and properly pursue his claim

golden scales

Arizona law seeks to facilitate finality after a person passes away.  As a result, certain brief time periods unfold related to creditor claims.

It’s important to obtain individualized case advice when seeking to collect monies owed following the death of the person that owes the money.   Failure to comply with the deadlines can result in a claim being “forever barred,” meaning that once the deadline passes and if the proper steps are not taken to preserve the claim, then the creditor cannot collect whatsoever.

  1. As in most situations keep in mind that communication is key.  B006

Following the passing of the person that owes the money, it’s important to open an effective line of communication with the family members.  Let them know about the amount owed and provide sufficient documentation so they understand the scope of work performed and how that justifies the amount owed.

  1. Provide clear, detailed documentation substantiating the work performed.

Make sure the relevant paperwork is in order (signed contract, work logs, invoice(s)) and provide copies to the person handling the deceased person’s affairs.  It’s very important to provide a written request for payment that details the debt and/or work performed as a first step in preserving the ability to collect.



Julie A. LaBenz has been licensed to practice law in Arizona since 2006.  She is currently located in majestic Sedona, Arizona and focuses her law practice on divorce, estate planning and probate.  To discuss your case with Julie, call 928-284-0909.

Disclaimers: 1) this article contains legal information only and is not legal advice; 2) by reading this article Julie LaBenz does not become your lawyer; 3) Julie LaBenz is licensed to practice law in the state of Arizona in the jurisdictions in which she’s admitted to practice.

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