Is family responsible for mom's 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 mom has a Visa card that she uses for everything. She also got a second card with my name on it.

My mom is just about an invalid. She doesn't get out much so the only pleasure she really gets is purchasing items for her family. The problem is, she's spending more than she can pay off every month. Her credit card balance is now reaching over $20,000. She is 89 years old. I want to know if and when she passes, am I or my family responsible for that debt?  -- Linda

Answer for the expert

Dear Linda,
As long as you are not a joint account holder, you are not responsible for your mom's credit card balances.

That doesn't mean your mom should go on spending more money than she can ever expect to pay back, knowing the debt will just go away or get paid by her estate when she dies. That's a bad idea.

Owing more in debt than a person can pay is a heavy financial and emotional burden, no matter a person's age. Your mom has to be distressed as she sees the bills come in, and sooner or later she won't be able to keep up with even the minimum payments. The short-term joy of being able to buy things will be far outweighed by the depression of getting those bills in the mail.

Your mom could live another 10 years or longer. If she's run all her credit cards up to the limit and has no cash reserves, she could be in financial trouble. Perhaps she'll need long-term care, either in her home or in an assisted living facility. Now is not a good time for her to use up her resources buying trinkets.

Don't let her fall into the trap of thinking that her money may soon "just" go to paying for long-term care anyway, so why not spend it all now. First, she'll have a lot more options if she has her own money. She may get by with some light housekeeping help, for example, and be able to stay in her home longer. If she ever needs assisted living, she'll probably get into a nicer facility if she has at least some money to get started. True, the government will pay for her nursing home if she's broke. But check out the local facilities that take new residents with no money of their own before she decides to throw herself at the mercy of the state.

Even though you and your siblings are not directly responsible for your mom's credit card balances, that doesn't mean they won't affect you. If she has high interest rate cards and falls behind on paying them, the balances could quickly double or triple. Her estate must pay her bills before her heirs get anything. In a way you will be paying the credit card bill with your reduced inheritance.

The idea of an 89-year-old woman finding her greatest joy in buying things for her family strikes me as very sad. Convincing her to stop spending or even getting her credit limits reduced is only half a solution. Maybe she needs to get out more, even if it's just to get together with friends more often. Does she have an unlimited long-distance phone plan? She might like to Skype with her grandchildren or great-grandchildren, if she has some.

If transportation is a problem, look into local senior shuttles in her area. You might be surprised at the services offered for seniors. A social worker in your county can help you find programs and services that can help her socialize more and get out of the house.

I'm sure you let your mom know that she doesn't need to buy your love or the love of her other children and grandchildren. I'd encourage you to talk to her about avoiding credit card debt. But even more importantly, I hope you can help her realize that spending time with her family and friends will give her a much greater sense of fulfillment and happiness than endless spending on stuff ever will.

See related: What happens to credit card debt after death?, Credit card law compels speedy estate settlement for debt after death

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Updated: 01-18-2018