Who must pay card debt of deceased husband?


Credit Smart
Credit Smart columnist Susan C. Keating
Susan C. Keating is the president and chief executive officer of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Prior to joining the NFCC, Keating spent 29 years in financial services. She was the highest ranking female CEO of a U.S. bank holding company, serving as president and chief executive of Allfirst Financial Inc., the largest U.S. holding of AIB Group. She currently serves on Bank of America's National Consumer Advisory Council and is a board member of the Council on Accreditation. Keating also participates in the Financial Regulation Reform Collaborative, a nonpartisan group committed to finding solutions for reforming financial services regulation.

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Dear Credit Smart,
My husband recently passed away, leaving me with his huge credit card problem. Family members have advised me not to pay on his credit cards, thinking that I don't owe the money. I don't want to have any credit issues due to nonpayment, (I own a business and need my credit to be good) but I'm having trouble with day to day let alone his debt. Do you know if I have to pay? – Cynthia


Dear Cynthia,
I am so sorry for your loss. The last thing you should have to worry about is credit card debt that is not your own. Whether you will have to pay is a good question, but you may not get the answer you want.

Before we talk about your husband’s debts, I want to assure you that your credit is your own. Any actions taken by your husband alone will not be reflected on your credit report or in your score. Each person married or not, has an individual credit report and credit score. The death of a spouse will not affect your score, assuming none of the accounts are in your name.

As to whether or not you will have to pay, it depends on where you live. If you live in a non-community property state, chances are you are not liable for your husband’s debt. In that case, your family members are correct in advising you not to pay on the cards. However, you should know that the creditors do have a right to attempt to collect from your husband’s estate. Any money or other assets your husband may have left must go toward any debts he has incurred. In a non-community property state, a deceased person’s debts are paid from their estate. Because credit card debt is unsecured debt, it does go to the back of the line for payment, but the creditors will most certainly look to the estate for any restitution they can obtain. If sufficient funds are not available to retire those debts, the creditors must simply write them off.  

However, if you live in a community property state, the rules are different. In a community property state, all assets acquired and all liabilities incurred during the marriage are owned jointly by the married persons. Upon death, those assets and liabilities are transferred to the surviving spouse. So, even though you did not apply for the account, had no card in your name, or ever used the cards for any purchases, the debts are probably your responsibility. The community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and, in some cases, Alaska.

If it turns out that you do live in one of the community property states, I would suggest you call a certified nonprofit credit counseling agency, and I recommend those affiliated with my organization, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. A counselor can go over your situation and help you find the best solution that will protect your credit. No matter what, be sure that you open all mail from the creditors and don’t ignore notices or court documents.  If you do receive anything like that, at some point you may need legal assistance.

Remember to always use your credit smarts!

See related: What happens to credit card debt after death

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Published: August 27, 2016

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Updated: 10-20-2016

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