I mistakenly paid off my late husband's card. Can I get a refund?

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 CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question Dear To Her Credit,
My late husband was a finance director and always handled all our finances without cluing me in on any of it. When he was sick in the hospital, I was stuck figuring out how to deal with all the bills and payments. In doing so, I made a mistake. I set it up incorrectly and apparently hit the wrong button that said “pay in full” for his account. Several days later, he died, the evening before Thanksgiving.

I didn’t realize until after my husband died that I’d made a mistake and accidentally paid his card in full. Now I am now a single mom in Tennessee with much lower income. How do I go about getting back the amount I incorrectly paid on his account? If I had known about the mistake before he died, I would have gotten a cash advance or used his card to make other payments to help us out and help make up for the error I made.

Is there any way to go about getting back the money I mistakenly paid on his behalf so that I can apply it to my credit card? 

I admit that I’ve been tempted to use his card for a cash advance just to get back the amount I incorrectly paid and put it toward my card instead, since paying off his card and keeping his credit good will no longer benefit him or me. What should I do? – Nichole

Answer

Dear Nichole,
I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. I’m afraid the problem with your husband’s credit card is not easy to fix.

At this point, the credit card is paid off. If the bank knows your husband is deceased, the account is closed. If not, the personal representative of your husband should notify the bank immediately so it can close the account.

Getting back money from a closed, paid-off account is probably impossible. It would be different if you had accidentally made a payment to a stranger’s account. But the money went from your shared bank account to his credit card balance. You can certainly call the bank and tell them that a payment was made in error, but under the circumstances, I doubt there is much the bank can or will do.

A cash advance is not the answer

Resist the urge to take out a cash advance on your husband’s card, even with the rationale that you are getting your own money back. Using a deceased person’s card is wrong, and it can get you in more trouble. You don’t need that kind of stress now. Plus, the interest charges on cash advances start accruing immediately, and the APR for a cash advance is much higher than the regular APR.

Even though you paid off a credit card you didn’t mean to, it may not make much difference in the long run. A personal representative or executor of your husband’s estate will need to sort out his bills and pay them according to the laws of Tennessee. Assuming he had enough money and other assets to pay his debts, the balance would have to be paid.

In the meantime, Thanksgiving was only a few weeks ago. No one expects you to have sorted things out and be on top of your finances so soon after the loss of your husband, especially when he was the partner in charge of finances.

Create a financial plan

Sometime in the next few weeks, you need to reach out for help taking charge of your finances. If your husband’s will doesn’t specify a personal representative or executor, you need to decide who that will be. That person will need to follow state laws to administer the estate and make sure all tax returns are filed as necessary.

You also need to sort through your own finances. Maybe you have a parent or in-law, or some other trusted friend, who can help you find out where you stand financially. You may have assets you don’t even know about, such as retirement accounts, brokerage accounts or life insurance. Look through your husband’s files for account statements and premium payments. Assets sometimes go unclaimed when someone dies, because no one knew about them.

You should also see what help may be available to you. Your children may qualify for Social Security Survivor Benefits, for example. If they are college age, they may qualify for higher amounts of student aid.

Next, with the help of a trusted relative, friend or financial adviser, you need to create a budget for your new circumstances and new plans for going forward.

Again, I’m so sorry this happened to you. Don’t ask too much of yourself right away. Grief is physical as well as emotional, and you need rest to recover. As you can, take steps to plan your “new normal” future. You can do it, just one step at a time.

See related: How to minimize the cost of a cash advance, 6 steps to take when a cardholder dies

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Updated: 08-16-2018