Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of “Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families.” She writes “Opening Credits,” a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for CreditCards.com.
Dear Opening Credits,
I recently pulled my credit report and found that my deceased father’s debts have been negatively affecting my credit and want to know how to fix this problem. – Michael
First, I am sorry for the loss of your father. Second, there are a couple reasons why this may be happening.
1. It’s a case of mistaken identity. If you and your dad have similar names, this could just be a file mix-up, which ought to be pretty easy to clear up.
According to Rod Griffin, director of public education for the credit reporting agency Experian, this could be an example of a “mixed file.” Essentially, your father’s information has been linked to the wrong credit history – yours. “While very uncommon, the situation most often involves a father and son who share the same name,” says Griffin.
To separate your dad’s information from yours and take steps to ensure it doesn’t reoccur, Griffin suggests going to one of the agencies’ websites (Equifax, Experian or TransUnion) to submit a dispute online. Whichever credit bureau you notify is required to update the other two. Filing a dispute online is definitely the easiest way to go. But if you’re up for it, I recommend using the snail mail method.
Online dispute forms come with clauses where you would waive your right to sue if the agencies don’t remove your dad’s debt. Instead of going to court, you would need to take the case to an arbitrator, which might not be as effective as a lawsuit. It probably won’t come to that, but it’s better to be protected. So write a letter outlining the erroneous information, include a copy of your credit report with the mistakes circled, and add any documentation you might have that proves which accounts are your father’s. Send the entire package to one of the credit reporting agencies by certified mail, return recent requested. Wait at least 30 days. The agency will investigate and get back to you with the result. If the conclusion supports your claim, all the agencies will remove the account from your files.
If the result is not in your favor, take it up with the creditor that is furnishing the erroneous information to the credit reporting agencies. You know who it is because the company’s name is on your report. Give the company a call and explain the situation. Hopefully, they will be easy to work with and will say something to the effect of, “Oops, you’re right – this is clearly not your account!” If so, have them send you a letter (or even an email) confirming this fact, as well as a statement that they will stop sending it to your file. After that, go through the dispute process again to clear your reports of the misinformation.
2. You were an authorized user on your dad’s card accounts. This is also an easy fix. If your dad added you as an authorized user to his account, all those card details show up on your credit report, including payments (or lack of them) or any collection activity. You should have been removed as soon as the card issuer found out about your father’s death, but mistakes happen. To get this information erased, all you have to do is call the card issuer who is reporting the information and request that you be removed from the account. Explain that your father is deceased and that, as an authorized user, you are not responsible for any of his debts. Once the card issuer complies, check your credit reports in about a month to see if those accounts have been removed from your credit history.
3. Your dad used your identity to open accounts in your name. Unfortunately, this happens all too often, where a parent uses a child’s Social Security number to open accounts because the parent’s credit has been ruined for myriad reasons. Again, you’ll have to go through the dispute routine mentioned above to get those accounts removed. Explain that your father illegally used your personal details to open accounts in your name and that you need to have them removed.
Know that in some situations, the card issuer may request a death certificate to prove that your father is no longer alive.
As many horror stories as there are about the hardship of righting credit report wrongs, the vast majority are resolved with the initial effort. Know, too, that the law is on your side. The Fair Credit Reporting Act stipulates that only correct and timely data may be listed on a person’s credit files. If you continue to struggle with removing this account, file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
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