The death of a spouse is one of life's most difficult times. It becomes even more difficult if the surviving spouse is not fully prepared to handle the family's financial matters.
It is human nature to avoid thinking about death and very few people like to talk about financial matters. So it is not surprising that very few couples ever talk about how to handle their financial situation in the event of one spouse's death. However, you owe it to your spouse to make sure he or she is prepared should something ever happen to you. This applies to all financial matters, including credit card debt.
When is a surviving spouse not responsible for credit card debt?
If a credit card is only in your spouse's name, the debt only belongs to your spouse (there are exceptions to this in community property states). Family members will not be responsible for the debt or forced to pay it. Even if you are a second cardholder on the account who has charging privileges, but it is not a joint account, you are not responsible for the remaining debt.
If the card is only in your spouse's name, the estate is responsible for paying off the balance. The executor of the estate will use the assets to pay off the debts. If the estate doesn't have the money to pay the bill, then credit card companies must write it off and the account is closed.
There are several instances when the surviving spouse is responsible for the credit card debt.
If the card is a joint account, this means that your name is also listed on the account and the card is reported on your credit report. You will be responsible for the debt after your spouse dies.
In addition, if you live in a community property state, you could also be responsible for the debt. Assets that are gained together during marriage are classified as joint property in these states. This can also apply to debt. Debt gained together during marriage is considered joint debt and the surviving spouse is responsible. Rules vary by state. States that use common property laws include Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Sometimes the surviving spouse will only have to pay the debts that he or she benefited from like food, utilities and health care.
After your spouse dies, either you or the executor of the estate must notify all creditors that the account holder has died (even if the account was only in your spouse's name). Find out where to send a copy of the death certificate and include a note with the account number. Send it by certified mail so you have proof that it was sent. Keep a copy of the letter for your records.
If the estate of the deceased spouse has cash or assets, the executor will decide how these will be used to pay off debts before inheritance is distributed to heirs. You may have to pay a portion of the balance along with the estate. If there are no assets in the estate, you are responsible for paying off the debt.
Expect creditors or collection agencies to call. If there is money in the estate, they will go after it and may pressure you and attempt to bully you for payment. Refer all questions about payment to the executor. Don't answer questions about this until you know what assets you have, what you are responsible for, and what bills must be paid. If collection agencies or credit card companies start calling, make sure the debt is valid, that you are responsible for it, and it is not past the statute of limitations (3-6 years, varies by state and situation). If they are pursuing debts that aren't valid or that you shouldn't be responsible for, it may be necessary to hire a lawyer to fight the actions of a credit card company or collections agency.
If you must assume payments for the debts, but don't have the money to pay, immediately contact the credit card companies to work out a payment plan. They may accept a portion of the payment to close the account. This is another issue where it may be helpful to have an attorney working for you. Seek legal advice from someone who specializes in estates, wills, and trusts.
Life is unpredictable, but there are a few things you can do to protect yourself and your spouse. If you have credit card and other debts, pay them off as quickly as possible. Make sure that both partners know about all credit accounts, the amount owed and help create a payment plan for these. It is also a good idea for each spouse to have a credit card in your own name so you each establish a strong credit record.
Bill Hardekopf is the CEO of LowCards.com. The site simplifies the confusion of shopping for credit cards. It is a free, independent website that helps consumers easily compare credit cards in a variety of categories such as lowest rates, rewards, rebates, balance transfers and lowest introductory rates. It also gives an unbiased ranking and review for each card.
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