How to stave off collection attempts after death

Debt collectors hound a widow over her deceased husband's card debt

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 for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
My father-in-law passed away from kidney failure a month ago. He had a credit card account with a balance of about $15,000. He did not have life insurance, and the funds remaining in his account come nowhere close to covering it. The family paid for his burial, but now the card company keeps calling and scaring my mother-in-law. She does not have the money to pay.

We have been trying to send what we can so they will leave her alone, but it's getting worse and someone told her that they can cause her to lose her house because his name is on it. She is the beneficiary but not a cardholder or user. We desperately need to know what to do.  -- Shirley

Answer for the expert

Dear Shirley,
You and your family should immediately stop paying from your personal funds, according to Boston bankruptcy attorney Theodore Connolly. "If it is as they understand -- that the widow is not a cardholder, guarantor or otherwise obligated on the account -- then she is not liable." The card issuer "can only collect from the estate," he says. "Creditors cannot look to beneficiaries of an estate to collect debts that are solely those of the decedent." The family should not waste money paying the card issuer unless it "can demonstrate that the debt is owed by the widow," he says.

When someone dies, every state has laws about how creditors get paid and when. Creditors are well aware that there may not be enough money to go around after a death, so they're anxious to jostle their way to the front of the line and get their money. It's not unusual for creditors to try to get survivors to pay debts out of the deceased person's funds or from the survivors' pocketbooks, but that doesn't make it right. You are obligated to follow proper procedures, not pay the creditors who squawk the loudest first.

Connolly recommends that your mother-in-law immediately send a letter to stop the collection efforts, using this form letter or something similar:

Dear Sir or Madam,

This letter is sent in response to (phone call/letter received by you on [date]). As I have stated, this debt belongs to my husband who is now deceased.  I have no obligation on his credit card.  In addition, he has no money in his estate.

Pursuant to my rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (the "FDCPA") and [your state], I am requesting that you validate this debt and provide evidence that I have a legal obligation to pay you. In particular, I demand that at a minimum you provide the documentation of the amount you assert I owe by me, the date the debt was originally incurred by me, payment history, the assignment to you of the debt, and any evidence that I am in fact obligated to pay this debt.

In addition, after providing me with the requested information, please cease all communication with me except the limited correspondences provided under the FDCPA.

According to the FDCPA, 15 USC 1692c, Section 805(c), entitled "Ceasing Communications" and the laws of [your state], you must cease all communication with me after I write to you stating that I no longer wish to communicate with you. Therefore, immediately cease all communications with me. Do not call me. Do not call my home, my work, my cellphone or any other location. Do not write.

You are hereby notified that if you do not comply with this request, I will immediately file a complaint and pursue such other legal remedies as I see fit.

Signed, [Your name]

Another option, according to Connolly, is to contact the consumer protection department of the state attorney general. 

Connolly sees overbearing collection tactics frequently. He says, "The intimidation and guilt that some creditors place on families after a death is unconscionable, especially because in most cases the creditors know they have no right to collect. It makes me very angry when I hear about how credit card companies will try to collect debt in this manner, especially when they will try to collect from grieving parents after they have lost a child."

Instead of sending money to the card company, your father-in-law's personal representative should do what is necessary in his state to notify all of his creditors and to close the estate properly. You and your family have enough to deal with at this time, with services, grieving, family travel and everything else that goes with losing a family member. Make sure someone takes steps immediately to at least put your mother-in-law's mind at ease over this matter.

See related: What happens to credit card debt after death?, Is Dad responsible for stepmom's credit card debt after her death?

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Updated: 12-19-2018