Are you liable for your late spouse's card debt?

Credit Care
'Credit Care' columnist Kim McGrigg
Kim McGrigg is Community Manager for Money Management International, where she provides personal finance education information to consumers.

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Question for the expert

Dear Credit Care,
My wife passed away this month. She had four credit card accounts with four different retailers. She is the only one named on the accounts. Can you tell me how this works? Am I liable for paying these cards off even though I did not know she had them? I have never been in this situation before. Please let me know. Thanks. -- John

Answer for the expert

Dear John,
Please accept my condolences on the loss of your wife. Having to deal with financial issues after losing a spouse can make an already difficult time even harder. However, professionals are available to help you, and I recommend that you contact an estate attorney for advice. Ask your friends and family for a recommendation for an attorney, or you can locate a qualified estate attorney in your area by contacting your state's bar association.

In general terms, you are not personally financially responsible for your wife's credit card accounts if you are not included as an owner or co-signer of the account. But, creditors may be able to go after some assets included in your wife's estate. Once your wife's will is probated -- the process of going through the courts to determine a will's validity -- it will depend on the laws in your state as to what assets must be used to satisfy creditors. This is where the experience of an estate attorney will help you, particularly if your wife did not have a will. 

One avenue of assistance for you comes from the Credit CARD Act. The law provides that once credit card companies are notified of the death by the estate administrator and request the balance of the account, the creditor must reply in a timely manner. Most important, however, no more fees (late, annual or otherwise) can be added to the account. I recommend that you contact the creditors right away to let them know your wife is deceased and be prepared to send them a certified copy of her death certificate. You can obtain copies by requesting them from your state's bureau of vital statistics.

If your wife has a large amount of debt on the four cards, it is likely the creditors will try to collect from you. Unless you signed as an owner of the account, you are not financially responsible. One exception to this rule would be if you live in a community property state. If you live in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin, you may or may not be liable for the debt. Again, advice from a qualified attorney will let you know your rights in your state.

Take your time working through the estate process, and don't let your wife's creditors pressure you into agreeing to repay debts for which you are not responsible. Consult with your attorney, and if you feel harassed by a creditor, give them your attorney's name and contact information and request that the creditor speak only with your attorney concerning the debt.

Handle your credit with care! 

See related: An interactive guide to the Credit CARD Act, What you need to know about community property laws and credit cards, Starting a credit life after a spouse's death, Does credit card interest accrue after death?, What happens to credit card debt after death?, Credit card law compels speedy debt settlement for debt after death

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Updated: 11-22-2017