When a cardholder dies, credit cards aren’t automatically canceled. This can cause some problems if you’re not careful. If you’re the personal representative or executor of someone’s estate, here’s what you can do.
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When someone dies, the task of notifying financial institutions and closing credit card accounts can easily be forgotten or pushed aside. Unfortunately, if card accounts are not dealt with properly and immediately, problems can crop up that make life more difficult later.
How to handle a block
Family members and others may innocently – or not so innocently – continue to use the deceased person’s card. Identity thieves troll the obituaries and online records to learn about recent deaths, so they can steal from accounts or create new ones. Banks may send out late notices and add extra fees when the next payment is missed.
One might assume that with today’s technology, banks would know when someone dies, but that’s not the case. “Survivors must take action quickly, to avoid legal or financial problems,” says Stephen Lesavich of Lesavich High-Tech Law Group. “Notification of death to the credit card issuer is not automatic, and credit cards are not automatically canceled upon a death.”
See related: What happens to credit card debt after death
If you are the personal representative or executor of someone’s estate, take these steps to resolve their credit accounts and credit report files in a responsible and timely manner:
1. Get organized.
The sooner you start organizing the person’s accounts, the better.
As a court-certified representative or surviving spouse, you can request a copy of the deceased’s credit report, which lists all the credit accounts issued in the dead person’s name.
You will also need to monitor incoming mail for six months to a year after the death.
2. Prevent further usage of all credit cards belonging to the deceased.
When someone dies, their credit card accounts are no longer valid. Don’t use them, and don’t let anyone else use them, not even for legitimate expenses of the deceased. Using a credit card that belongs solely to someone who has died – even if the person using the card was an authorized user or had permission to use the card before the cardholder died – is fraud.
Lesavich also notes, “A user may be liable for the new charges and old debt in this situation.”
Collect all credit cards from people who may have them, including any authorized user cards, and put them in a safe place or destroy them. If you think someone else has the account numbers for a credit card, tell them the account cannot be used.
“If the account is a joint account, there should be no interruption to their use of the card,” says Betty Riess, Bank of America spokeswoman. “If the co-owner has any questions about the status, it’s always a good idea to reach out to the card issuer,” says Riess.
If someone is an authorized user on the card belonging to a spouse who dies, in most states, the survivor is not liable for the debt. In community property states, though, creditors may pursue a surviving spouse. If the amount is significant and you are not sure if the surviving spouse is required to pay, contact an estate attorney in your state.
3. Get multiple official copies of the deceased’s death certificate.
Obtain original death certificates from the county where the deceased lived. The funeral director who handled burial, cremation or other arrangements may also provide you with copies of the death certificate. Get more copies than you think you need – it’s easier than going back for more later.
You probably will want to get one death certificate copy for each of the deceased’s credit cards, three for the three credit reporting bureaus, plus copies for other estate purposes. Some states have both long-form and short-form death certificates, and banks will differ on which they require.
4. Notify all credit card companies.
All credit card accounts should be closed immediately after the primary cardholder dies. Act quickly to avoid interest and finance charges. For joint credit cards, you should notify the credit card company that a joint cardholder has died.
You should notify the credit card companies by phone, and follow up by mail.
First, call the credit card issuer and ask for the department for deceased accounts. Talking to a general customer service representative may not be successful. When you reach the right department, ask that the account be closed, and where you should send documentation in writing. Lesavich says, “Ask the credit card issuer if there are any recurring charges on the card, and request those recurring charges be canceled.”
If interest or finance charges have been applied to the account, Lesavich says you should ask that those charges be waived because of the death.
A phone call should flag the account. However, to officially close the account, it’s important to follow up in writing. Include the deceased person’s name, date of birth, date of death, Social Security number, address and credit card account number, as well as all your own contact information and your relationship to the deceased.
Send the letter as registered, certified, express mail via the U.S. Postal Service, or via a delivery service such as FedEx, to the address indicated by the department for deceased accounts. Save your verification of receipt of the letter.
When a credit card issuer receives your letter, it typically asks for an official copy of the death certificate, if you haven’t sent it already. Some issuers, such as Discover, verify the death on their own, says Lesavich.
Bank of America requests that you provide a faxed or legible photocopy of the death certificate. “Depending on circumstances, we may require a certified copy,” the website says. Bank of America may also request additional documents.
The Bank of America website says, “We’ll assign a case number for you to use after you notify us of the death. When you submit documents to us, please include the case number on all documents for our reference.”
Since different issuers handle the death of a cardholder differently, it’s important to confirm the necessary steps with each credit card issuer separately.
5. Contact the three credit report bureaus to freeze their credit reports.
You should also contact the big three credit bureaus to freeze their credit, then follow up with a letter. Call Equifax, Experian and TransUnion immediately to request a credit freeze, which will prevent anyone accessing their credit file.
Request that the credit report be immediately frozen by following the recorded prompts. Freezing the credit files prevents criminals from opening new credit cards or other accounts using the name and Social Security number of the deceased.
“You do not want to deal with identity theft of a loved one several years after they have passed away,” says Lesavich.
Then, follow up with a written request and include the deceased person’s name, date of birth, date of death, Social Security number, address and credit card account number for all card accounts and a copy of the death certificate.
You should also include your own name, address, phone number, email address and relationship to the deceased. Send this letter by certified or registered mail, or another method that gives you proof of delivery.
6. Distribute payments to creditors.
Paying the credit card companies is last on this list for a reason. After someone dies, all creditors must be paid the right way, in order and at the right time. Depending on state law, you may need to wait a specified period for bills to come in and post a public notice of death in a newspaper before you start distributing money.
Don’t let individual creditors try to jump ahead in line to get paid first – especially if there is not enough money to go around.
Before you pay anything, you should ask the credit card company to submit a proof of claim for the estate, says John Caleb Tabler of Lau & Associates in Pennsylvania. You can include this request with your written notification to the credit card company or submit it later.
“Make sure [any card debt] gets paid out of the assets of the estate if there are any,” says Tabler. “Keep in mind, if you waste estate assets as a personal representative, misuse them, or, in the case of Pennsylvania, disburse money from the estate before there’s a formal accounting, as the personal representative you can be found liable for debts owed.”
As the personal representative, avoid paying bills for the deceased yourself, and never commingle your money with that of the estate. You have no obligation to personally pay any debt of the deceased unless you were already a responsible party on the account, Tabler says.
“Generally, the personal representative is only responsible for making sure that debts owed solely by the deceased are paid out of estate assets,” says Tabler. “Your job is to gather the assets of the estate, then distribute it out to those parties that have filed claims against the estate or are due some payment under the will.”
Be very careful what you say to creditors who call or write, Tabler adds. Don’t say that you will pay the amount later or agree to a payment plan.
“Any protection a personal representative may have individually goes away if they enter into an agreement to pay the debt of the deceased,” he says.
Some debt collectors are very aggressive, often preying on the survivor’s emotions to try to get them to accept paying of the deceased person’s debt.
“In such a situation, the survivor is emotional and not thinking clearly. The survivor should never admit or agree to anything on the phone. [They] should ask the debt collector to provide proof of the debt in writing,” says Lesavich.
Taking care of credit card accounts is just part of the many responsibilities of a personal representative or executor of someone’s estate, but it’s an important one. By safeguarding the estate and deceased person’s name from waste and fraud, you are helping to make sure all assets are used the way they are intended, and that future trauma is minimized as much as possible.