To Her Credit

Can you use dad’s credit card when he’s ill?

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,
I live on the West Coast and I’ve been traveling to care for my seriously ill father back East. I can’t work while I’m here, which has been three months now — much longer than expected.

I’ve been using my savings as well as my father’s savings to pay bills and to purchase food and so on to live on. Additionally, I’m using my credit cards for gas to take my father to the doctor’s office and hospital, as well as for prescriptions.

My father’s passing is anticipated any day now. After that happens, I’ll still need to pay for food and gas as I prepare for the services and take care of things, plus I have no other way to pay my regular monthly bills. Is it appropriate for me to continue to use my father’s credit cards for my living expenses as well as the celebration of life items, such as poster boards and photo enlargements? It would only be for a short period until the services and celebration are completed.

I am the estate executrix and plan to pay the credit cards bills when they arrive at my dad’s home (as I’ve been doing while my father was in the hospital). Thank you for your suggestions as well as any legal information regarding this matter.   — Shannon

Answer for the expert

Dear Shannon,
Money issues at the end of life can be very complicated, as you’ve discovered. We tend to prepare for medical expenses, but it’s harder to be ready for the expenses of travel, missed work and miscellaneous expenses during such a time. To add to the confusion, you have to worry about the legal aspects of using someone’s money when they are ill and not competent to make decisions, and after they die.

The first mistake many people make is to start mixing funds together. Even though you are taking care of all the bills, try to keep things separate as much as possible. Don’t deposit his funds in your account (even if it’s to pay his bills) or to pay his expenses with your credit cards. When you get to the cash register, pay for his prescriptions and his other supplies with his card, not yours, if possible.

Whether you use your father’s cards and money to pay your expenses while you care for him is up to you and your dad. Boston attorney and ElderLaw Answers President Harry S. Margolis says, “With respect to the credit card, with her father’s permission or as joint cardholder on the account, she can use the card as she deems appropriate.”

If there’s any doubt about whether your dad is competent to give you permission to pay your own expenses, you’ll need to take additional measures. Margolis says, “If she has siblings, she would be advised to come to agreement with them on how to spend her father’s funds, otherwise she may be seen as overstepping.”  If you’re an only child, there’s generally no one to challenge you if you use his cards and other funds as you see fit.

Once your father dies, however, you have to stop using the card. “That right ends with the father’s death, unless she is also liable on the card,” says Margolis.

You can and should use your father’s funds to pay for funeral and other expenses, such as legal fees. You generally set up an estate checking account as the executrix and use that account to pay bills. You may have other options, such as adding yourself to your dad’s checking account as a joint account holder.

If your dad has a small estate, little or no debt, and no other relatives expecting an inheritance, settling the estate should be simple. Otherwise, small missteps can cause all kinds of trouble. I’d consult with a lawyer familiar with your state laws. The right professional advice can help you get through this difficult time with as little worry and trouble about money as possible.

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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