Options limited when paying bills for relative in coma

Speaking of Credit columnist Barry Paperno
Barry Paperno is a freelance writer and credit scoring expert with decades of consumer credit industry experience, serving as consumer affairs manager for FICO (formerly Fair Isaac Corp.) and consumer operations manager for Experian. He writes "Speaking of Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about credit scoring and rebuilding credit, for CreditCards.com. His writings about credit scoring have appeared in The Huffington Post, MSN Money, CBS Money Watch and other consumer finance websites.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Speaking of Credit,
My brother is currently in a coma. He has an outstanding balance on a credit card, and it is past due. We do not have access to his bank statements or other financial information. However, we apparently can make a payment for him from our own accounts. Should we pay the minimum payment on his account? Is there any other option to stall payments until he wakes up? --Nhan

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Nhan,
I'm very sorry to hear of your brother's condition. In terms of maintaining an incapacitated family member's creditworthiness or simply attempting to head off future problems, your circumstances bring up some rarely anticipated, but often critical, credit issues.

Since you don't have access to your brother's credit card statement it's doubtful you know how much he owes. And unless you have his credit card in your possession, you're not likely to have his card account number or perhaps even know which card company to pay. You clearly have some obstacles ahead as you try to do the right thing for your brother's financial well-being.

Had your brother been able to plan ahead for this situation, a durable power of attorney could have been arranged for you or another family member to handle his finances and health care. However, since he's not able to take part in this decision, for you or other family members to achieve this same level of money management authority, a court would have to appoint a conservator or guardian, following what's typically an expensive and lengthy legal process.

To help you accomplish your goal of paying this and perhaps other debts of your brother's, let's look at some of what you might expect when contacting a creditor you're either already aware of, or the even-more difficult job of trying to obtain cooperation from a creditor he may owe, but that you have not yet been able to identify.

Known creditor
If you know the name of the card company or lender, have some idea of the debt amount, and can provide some identifying information, you should contact the company's customer service department in hopes of creating a plan to begin catching up on his payments and forestalling further damage to his credit.

American Express, for example, says it will work with families wishing to make payments on behalf of a loved one -- within the confines of the law. Sonya Conway, AmEx vice president of public affairs and communications, recommends you call American Express to speak with a customer service representative, while keeping in mind the company "will not be able to disclose account details without consent from the card member or valid legal documentation that the family member is authorized to represent the card member's financial interests."

This could mean that, since the card company may not divulge exactly how much the cardholder owes, the family member may have to do some further research into the debt or offer to pay a rough estimate with the idea that that doing something rather than nothing could help keep the account out of further trouble.

Conway also advises that, as mentioned above, "If the account number is unknown, the family member will need to provide our representative with multiple forms of personally identifiable information regarding the card member (i.e., name, mailing address, phone number, Social Security number, date of birth, etc.) in order for us to direct the payment to the appropriate account."

While this approach applies specifically to American Express, it would be fair to assume similar procedures exist at other card companies.

Unknown creditor
But what if you either don't know which credit card company to pay, or perhaps you know of one or more accounts, but want to obtain his credit report to identify any other possible debts going unpaid?

I posed this question to David Blumberg, public relations director at TransUnion. Via email he responded that due to federal law placing restrictions on providing a consumer's personal credit information to anyone else, "in situations where consumers are incapacitated, the family can obtain power of attorney, guardianship, or powers of executor, and then we'll be able to release the information."

While his does not appear to be a solution you can use without first going to court, Blumberg also suggests "the family could reach out to TransUnion to request the addition of a protective statement in his file, similar to a fraud alert, that would invite any creditors inquiring on him to contact a designated family member."

In addition to such a statement helping protect against ID theft or other fraudulent use of his credit, should there be any other of your brother's accounts in distress, a creditor pulling his credit report in hopes of finding a new address at which to contact him or simply checking to see if he's paying his other bills, will see this statement and be able to contact a family member to arrange for resolution of the past due debt.

Stalling payments
With the proper information on hand, you may be able to reach an arrangement with a creditor to suspend payments temporarily and "age" your brother's account from delinquent to a current status after making a number of minimum monthly payments. Then, as long as payments continue to be made each month, his account and credit score could be saved. Of course, each creditor and individual case will be different, so be ready for different responses from different companies.

I truly hope your brother is able to get back on his feet before any such arrangements will be needed. I wish him and your family the best.

See related: How to stop identify theft of a deceased family member, 6 steps to using credit cards to manage caregiving costs

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Updated: 01-23-2019