Stop paying your late mother's credit card debt

If you didn't sign on as an accountholder, you don't owe it

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 Dear To Her Credit,
After my mom passed, I began making the payments on her two credit cards. I have never used them, just made payments. She has been gone almost five years and there is still over $3,000 on the cards. Is there a way I could stop paying on them?  -- Patricia

Answer Dear Patricia,
Yes. Stop paying on your mom's credit card bills now.

Making payments on a relative's credit card for years after she is gone is not your legal or moral responsibility. Taking care of your parents while they are alive is great. Trying to pay their debts for five years after they are gone is not wise use of your resources.

If they're still sending statements and accepting payments after this period of time, I would question whether the banks even know that your mom has passed away. Whoever managed your mom's estate five years ago should have notified them and closed the accounts long ago.

Here's how it's supposed to work when someone dies:

  1. Activity must stop on accounts owned solely by a deceased person. No one is allowed to make charges on a credit card after the person dies, unless it is a joint account.
  2. As soon as they're notified of a death -- and that should be as soon as possible -- banks shut down access to all accounts owned solely by the deceased, blocking activity until an estate executor (or successor trustee in the case of trusts) gains the legal right to take over the account.
  3. Once the estate executor or trustee gains account access, the estate pays off outstanding debts, using the deceased person's assets. If there are more debts than money to pay them, the debts are paid off in an order determined by state law.
  4. The credit card company is paid in full or in part. If the credit card company does not receive full payment, it writes off the rest as a loss. Banks do this every day with unsecured debt. It's part of their cost of doing business -- and it's one reason why credit card interest rates are much higher than those for other forms of borrowing.

At this late date, you should contact the credit card companies by phone or mail and tell them what happened. Tell them that you are not responsible for the remaining balance. They may ask for a copy of the death certificate or other documentation. Once the bank has everything it needs, that should be the end of it.

I'm concerned that you would make payments so long on this account. It must not be a small amount of money for you, or you would likely have just paid it off when you thought you were responsible or were somehow helping your mom. Nevertheless, the money you've been paying needlessly could have been going toward a retirement account, saving for your next car so you don't have to make payments or investing in your skill set to improve your career.

See related: What happens to credit card debt after death?, How to handle collection calls for a dead person's debt

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Updated: 11-24-2017