Using a deceased spouse's plastic is illegal
Once a person dies, his card accounts go to the grave with him
To Her Credit
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also writes regularly for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com
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Dear To Her Credit,
Am I responsible for my late husband's credit card debt? I
am an authorized user only, but have been making purchases and making payments
since his death. I received a rewards check from the credit card company, but was
not allowed to cash it because I was not the owner of the card. If I can't cash
the check, am I responsible for paying the debt? -- Delores
Please cut up this credit card and do not make any more
purchases on it. The day your husband died, the account became no longer valid,
just like his checking account or anything else that had his name on it and no
Many people make the mistake of thinking that if the
deceased person's money will go to them after a death anyway, especially if it's
a spouse, they can keep using that person's bank, investment and debt accounts.
That's not how it works. In fact, if creditors wanted to claim that someone
intentionally used an account after the account holder died, they could have a
case for fraud.
As you discovered, you cannot cash a check made out to your
husband after he died. The check belongs to your husband's estate and should be used to pay off any debts he left (including this card). Call or write to the
credit card company, tell them your husband has passed away, and ask them to
send a new check made out to "Estate of (your husband's name)." When
the check comes, give it to the personal representative of your husband's
estate. The representative can deposit the check in the special account set up for the estate.
The fact that you can't cash the check, however, has nothing
to do with whether you are liable for the debt. As an authorized user, you
normally are not liable for an account balance. However, I recommend you pay
for any charges you made after your husband died, when the account should have
When the estate of your husband is settled, hopefully his
assets will cover all his debts and his remaining assets will be distributed as
he stipulated in his will. If everything he owned is willed to you, the effect
will be the same as if you had paid it, because it reduces the amount you
receive from the estate.
If the estate doesn't have enough cash to pay off the
creditors, your liability for any remaining debt depends on two things: whether
you live in a community property state and whether you benefited from the
money spent. (Community property states are California, Arizona, Nevada, New
Mexico, Idaho, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska is an
"opt-in" community property state.) In a community property state,
you can be liable for the entire credit card balance incurred during the
marriage, even if you were not a joint card holder. In any state, creditors can try to collect from you regardless of
whether the cards are in your name if you benefited from the expenditures.
I'm surprised your husband's personal representative hasn't
notified all his creditors by now so they can close all accounts. That's one of
the first things that should be done. Taking care of financial matters after a death
is complicated, and it's too much to ask of most family members when they are
dealing with such a loss. If you or someone in your family is trying to do it and
isn't sure exactly what to do, I recommend you find an estate lawyer or a free
or low-cost legal service in your state.
You've been through enough already. You shouldn't have to
navigate the estate process yourself. Get the help you need and by all means,
take care of yourself and your own credit.
What happens to credit card debt after you die?, Starting a credit life after a spouse's death, Credit card law compels speedy estate settlement for debt after death, Compare states' community property laws
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Published: March 4, 2011