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When a cardholder dies in debt, authorized users are not liable

But get the information off credit report as soon as you can

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Credit Care
'Credit Care' columnist Tanisha Warner
Tanisha Warner is the communications manager for Money Management International, where she manages educational content designed to teach consumers about personal finance topics. She writes "Credit Care," a weekly reader Q&A about debt issues, for CreditCards.com.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Credit Care,
I am seeking advice/guidance on how to deal with credit card debt issues. I was a co-authorized user on a few credit cards with my former boyfriend who unexpectedly passed away in December 2011. He was the one paying the credit card bills. I do not have the finances to pay the debt, which is around $10,000. I am on Supplemental Security Income (since about 2005) and currently receive a housing grant through the county I live and I live in a subsidized apartment unit. I receive $674 monthly from SSI and more than three-fourths of that amount goes to my monthly rent and that leaves me with very little for even basic things such as food. Now that my former boyfriend is deceased and the debt is on my credit report, my credit score is extremely poor. It is hard enough living on what I get, having hardly any money in my account the last couple of weeks of every month. Is there any way since he was paying the credit card bills and died, to resolve this debt? I am in desperate help for guidance. -- Ann

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Ann,
First, I would recommend that you determine the ownership of the credit card accounts. You state that you are "co-authorized user." If you are only an authorized user on the cards, you are not financially responsible for paying the balances due. However, if you are a joint owner of the accounts, then you would be financially responsible.

The simplest way to learn the ownership information is to acquire copies of your credit reports. You can do so for free online at AnnualCreditReport.com. The credit card accounts will be listed on your credit report and included in the listing will be a notation that says "owner" or "authorized user."

As I said earlier, if you are an authorized user on the accounts, you are not financially responsible. I would suggest that you contact the creditors and let them know that the owner of the account is deceased, and you would like your name removed from the accounts. Once your name is removed from the accounts, they should no longer be reported on your credit reports and your credit score should improve. Check your credit reports again 60 days or more from when you made the request that your name be removed. If any accounts remain listed, dispute the account online as "not my account" with the credit bureau that is reporting it.   

It does not appear from what you have written that you have been contacted by the creditors or collectors regarding payment on these accounts. If that is the case, you are most likely not an owner on the accounts. But if you are listed as an owner of the accounts on your credit reports, I recommend that you contact the creditors and let them know your situation. Explain that your boyfriend paid the accounts and has passed away. Let them know you are on a fixed Supplemental Security Income and cannot afford to pay the account balance(s).

You do not own any real property and your only income is SSI. Due to these circumstances, you are what is known as "judgment proof." In other words, the credit card issuers can sue, but they have little reason to do so. They have no legal recourse to collect on the accounts because SSI is exempt from garnishment (except for federal debt or child support) and you have no property on which to place a lien. So, you do not need to worry about paying these accounts.

Your credit score will improve once you are removed as an authorized user on the accounts. If you are an owner on the accounts, it will take seven years from the first date of delinquency on the accounts when they will no longer be reported on your credit reports.

Handle your credit with care!

See related: What happens to credit card debt after death, Starting a credit life after a spouse's death

Tanisha Warner is the communications manager for Money Management International, the largest nonprofit, full-service credit counseling agency in the United States. She manages educational content designed to teach consumers about personal finance topics. You can find more money management advice on Blogging for Change and MMI's Facebook page.

Credit Care answers a question about a debt or credit issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week. Send your question to Credit Care.

Published: October 1, 2012



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