Can I use deceased brother's cards to pay for his funeral?

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 CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear To Her Credit,
My brother was recently killed by a drunk driver. Now I’m trying to take care of his personal affairs.

My brother had over 30 credit cards, and I was an authorized user on three of them. Can I use the cards to pay off his debts and then close them? He has no insurance that I can see, so the credit cards could help pay for most of the funeral expenses. I don’t know quite what to do, seeing how I have money on all these cards but don’t have any extra money to help with paying for a funeral.

I only knew about the three cards that I was on, but the rest I had no clue about. – Cynthia

Answer

Dear Cynthia,
I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your brother.

As in so many situations, a tragedy is made worse when someone such as yourself is left with a financial mess to deal with afterward. You really are in a bind, needing to pay for a funeral, but not having ready cash to do so.

Using your brother’s credit cards is not the answer, however. Making charges on a credit card, knowing full well that it will not be paid and having no intention of paying it, violates the credit card agreement. It is also dishonest. Don’t do it.

The other problem with using your brother’s credit card is that the cards are no longer valid after his death. By using them, even as an authorized user, you may be committing fraud. As the person taking care of his affairs, you are responsible for notifying the credit card companies of his passing and closing the accounts.

So what does a person do when there’s no money for a funeral? Here are some options:

  • Ask for help. If several family members and friends each donate what they can, you may collect enough to take care of expenses. Some people ask friends and friends of friends for help through GoFundMe.com or YouCaring.com. In a situation in which a life is cut short by a drunken driving accident, you may be surprised how generous people can be. You should also check for state or local government help where your brother lived.
  • Cut costs. Funeral directors are in the business of selling goods and services. Making it clear that you are on a budget can slow down the sales pitch. You may be able to cut costs by selecting cremation and by using a free or low-cost venue for the service, such as a church, home or park.
  • Delay the memorial service. It’s becoming popular to have a memorial service a a later date, giving the family more time to gather pictures and memories. Some people think it’s easier to remember the good times and celebrate a person’s life after a few weeks or months. In this case, it also gives the family time to collect funds for a memorial.
  • Consider donating to science. In some cases, you can allow the body to be used for medical training or research. That costs you nothing. The organization that receives the body pays all transportation and other expenses and typically returns the ashes to the family.
  • Do nothing. The funeral director can’t make you claim a relative’s body. If a body is unclaimed, the state or local government takes care of it.

Whatever you decide, be sure to get help from other family members. Don’t jeopardize your own financial needs by shouldering the whole burden yourself.

In the rush of making final arrangements, remember that nothing money can buy will be as precious as the memories you have of your brother. Those memories can never be taken from you.

See related: Can an executor use a deceased's credit card?, What happens to credit card debt after death?

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Updated: 11-24-2017