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How to handle collection calls for a dead person's debt

After a death, creditors may come calling. Here's what to say

By Dana Dratch

How to handle debt collection calls after someone dies After someone dies owing credit card debt,  creditors may come calling. If you get a collections call, here's the drill. First, don't give any information (especially your Social Security number). Instead, you need to ask some questions, log the answers, then do a little research.

(See a printable .pdf version of this story, "Script: How to handle debt collection calls after someone dies.")

What to ask The debt collector's answer
Who was the original creditor?  
Who is trying to collect (the card company itself or collections agency)?  
What is the caller's name? What's the company's contact number and address?  
When was the debt acquired? If it's a credit account, when was it opened? Closed?  
What name or names are on the account? Are they joint account holders or authorized users?  
What is the total owed?  
Why are you being contacted about the debt?  
Can the company furnish proof of the debt?)  

If the company has paperwork for you, have it mailed to the executor, your attorney, or the address on file (if that's still accessible). Don't give out your address or other information. In a pinch, have it faxed.

After the call, if you believe the debt is real:

•  See if it may have already been settled. (Call it paperwork error: Collections companies have been known to try to collect debts that have already been paid  or have already been dismissed in bankruptcy.) Talk with the executor to see if the debt was paid or dismissed during probate. (Especially if some time has elapsed since the death.)

•  Is your name on the debt? If the collector is alleging that you are a joint account holder (rather than an authorized user), he should furnish proof in writing. (Just FYI: You would have had to sign the application.)

•  Check the clock. Find out the statute of limitations for collection for the decedent's debt or the amount of time the creditor has remaining to collect.

•  Call a lawyer. Think you might be responsible? Before you agree to anything, double-check what you're hearing from the card or collections company by talking with an attorney.

See related: What happens to credit card debt after someone dies, Credit card law requires speedy settlement of credit card debt after death, Fed issues new rules for debt collecting from relatives of deceased debtors 

Updated: July 26, 2011

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