Can you use dad's credit card when he's ill?
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,
I live on the West Coast and I've been traveling to care for
my seriously ill father back East. I can't work while I'm here, which has been three
months now -- much longer than expected.
I've been using my savings as well as my father's savings to pay bills
and to purchase food and so on to live on. Additionally, I'm using my credit
cards for gas to take my father to the doctor's office and hospital, as well as
My father's passing is anticipated any day now. After that
happens, I'll still need to pay for food and gas as I prepare for the services and
take care of things, plus I have no other way to pay my regular monthly bills.
Is it appropriate for me to continue to use my father's credit cards for my
living expenses as well as the celebration of life items, such as poster boards
and photo enlargements? It would only be for a short period until the
services and celebration are completed.
I am the estate executrix and plan to pay the credit cards
bills when they arrive at my dad's home (as I've been doing while my father was
in the hospital). Thank you for your suggestions as well as any legal information
regarding this matter. -- Shannon
Money issues at the end of life can be very complicated, as
you've discovered. We tend to prepare for medical expenses, but it's harder to
be ready for the expenses of travel, missed work and miscellaneous expenses during
such a time. To add to the confusion, you have to worry about the legal aspects
of using someone's money when they are ill and not competent to make decisions,
and after they die.
The first mistake many people make is to start mixing funds
together. Even though you are taking care of all the bills, try to keep things
separate as much as possible. Don't deposit his funds in your account (even if
it's to pay his bills) or to pay his expenses with your credit cards. When you
get to the cash register, pay for his prescriptions and his other supplies with
his card, not yours, if possible.
Whether you use your father's cards and money to pay your
expenses while you care for him is up to you and your dad. Boston attorney and
ElderLaw Answers President Harry S. Margolis says, "With respect to the
credit card, with her father's permission or as joint cardholder on the
account, she can use the card as she deems appropriate."
If there's any doubt about whether your dad is competent to
give you permission to pay your own expenses, you'll need to take additional
measures. Margolis says, "If she has siblings, she would be advised to
come to agreement with them on how to spend her father's funds, otherwise she
may be seen as overstepping." If you're
an only child, there's generally no one to challenge you if you use his cards
and other funds as you see fit.
Once your father dies, however, you have to stop using the
card. "That right ends with the father's death, unless she is also liable
on the card," says Margolis.
You can and should use your father's funds to pay for
funeral and other expenses, such as legal fees. You generally set up an estate
checking account as the executrix and use that account to pay bills. You may
have other options, such as adding yourself to your dad's checking account as a
joint account holder.
If your dad has a small estate, little or no debt, and no
other relatives expecting an inheritance, settling the estate should be simple.
Otherwise, small missteps can cause all kinds of trouble. I'd consult with a
lawyer familiar with your state laws. The right professional advice can help
you get through this difficult time with as little worry and trouble about
money as possible.
See related: What happens to credit card debt after death?, Credit card law compels speedy estate settlement for debt after death
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