Authorized user kept charging on deceased dad's card

When the primary account holder dies, the card must be closed

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
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, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear Sally,
My father died in 2011. I still have a card on which he is the primary holder. Only recently did I find out I was merely an authorized user. For years I thought I was a joint account holder and continued to charge and make payments.

Am I still liable for the balance? What are my responsibilities at this point? Can I close the account without repercussions?  – Melissa


Dear Melissa,
Five years is a long time to use a card that should have been closed when someone died. Ordinarily, when a person dies, the personal representative or other responsible person notifies all banks and lenders of the person’s death. The accounts are closed, and any balance is paid by the estate. If there’s not enough money to pay all the debts, they are paid in order of precedence according to state law.

Continuing to use a card after the primary cardholder has died puts both you and the credit card company in awkward positions. On the credit card company’s side, if there was a balance when your dad died, the estate should have paid it. Now, the estate is no doubt closed, so it’s a bit late to get payment from it. If most or all of the balance is from purchases you made after your dad died, the problem is that they don’t have a signed contract with you.

From your perspective, it’s awkward because you innocently used a card you thought was yours. You weren’t trying to get away with anything, and you’d like to make it right.

Your best course of action is to be honest with the credit card company about what happened and try to resolve the debt as quickly as possible.

The first thing you should do is notify the credit card company that your father has died, and explain the situation. Don’t worry, the credit card company has seen all kinds of situations like this, and worse. If you agree that the debt belongs to you because all or most of it is from your purchases, I recommend that you pay it off if possible. You may be able to use savings (without letting the balance dip too low), transfer the balance to another card, sell something or get a personal loan, such as one from a relative. If you cannot find cash to pay off the balance all at once, the bank may let you make payments. They’ll want you to sign a contract agreeing to do so.

If your dad left a significant balance on the debt when he died, that’s another story. You are not liable for your dad’s debts as an authorized user, or for any debt run up before his date of death. The credit card company should not hold you liable for that balance or for interest on the balance.

You can see how complicated this can quickly become. If the card has a reasonable balance, your best bet is to pay it and move on. If the balance is large enough to significantly affect your financial future, and there is some disagreement about how much of the debt is yours, you may need to seek qualified legal help in your state.

See related: What happens to credit card debt after death?

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Updated: 02-21-2019