Am I liable for grown son's business debt on shared card?

An entrepreneurial son racks up debt on shared card

Your Business Credit columnist Elaine Pofeldt
Elaine Pofeldt is a journalist whose articles on entrepreneurship and careers have appeared in Fortune, Working Mother, Money and many other publications. She is a former senior editor at Fortune Small Business magazine and an entrepreneur herself, as co-founder of, a website for independent professionals. She writes "Your Business Credit," a weekly column about small business and credit, for

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Question Dear Your Business Credit,
I don't know where to turn. My husband passed away six years ago. He was a self-employed contractor. My 21-year-old son tried to continue the business. I had an American Express card for many years. I listed him as a secondary card user. For several years he used the card for materials only. Payments were always current.

In the past year he ran into several bad business transactions. Now I find out the card is several months past due. He is filing for Chapter 13 reorganization. However, I have found out I am responsible. I don't know where to turn. His lawyer originally told him he could include the bill in the Chapter 13. Now he claims it is on me. I have been diligent in keeping current on all bills as well as my mortgage. I need advice. – Carol

Answer Dear Carol,
This is a tough situation. It sounds like your son tried his best to run the business, but perhaps through inexperience made some mistakes. It was generous of you to help him out by giving him access to credit.

As I mentioned in a previous column about the dangers of co-signing, if you took out the card yourself as a primary card holder and made your son an authorized user, you likely are legally responsible for the debt. If you have a written contract with your son saying he agrees to pay charges made on the card, you could pursue him in court to make him pay the debt, but reading between the lines of your letter, it doesn’t sound like you would be inclined to do that.

So what do you do? Your son is at an age where many people make mistakes with credit cards. I doubt you want to add to his woes, given that he is essentially broke, but you also need to consider the fact that this debt is putting you in a precarious position.

If you have a good relationship with your son, I would suggest you have a candid talk with him about how difficult it will be for you to pay the debt and ask him to offer suggestions on how he can help you whittle it down. Whether he is planning to continue the business after the reorganization or get a job, then he will have some money coming in, and he may at least be able to contribute a small amount. He may be overwhelmed with the bankruptcy filing at the moment, so you may want to hold off on raising the topic for a few months.

In the meantime, protect yourself by calling American Express. Ask the company to shut down your son’s charging privileges on the card. Let him know you’re doing this, so he isn’t taken by surprise. If the balance is large and you can’t pay it, look for a balance transfer deal with 0 percent interest to give yourself some breathing room to come up with the money.

This situation is undoubtedly painful for you and your son, but you will get past it. If he continues as an entrepreneur, resist the temptation to use your credit to help him and encourage him to learn about financing a business through cash flow. Mistakes are almost inevitable in business, but getting into overwhelming debt doesn’t have to be one of them. Good luck!

See related: If authorized user goes bankrupt, account holder’s credit not at risk, How to graduate from parents’ credit, cut ‘authorized user’ cord

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Updated: 11-23-2017