Credit card debt after death: Who’s responsible and what’s forgiven?

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In a Nutshell

After someone has passed, their estate is responsible for paying off any debts owed, including those from credit cards. Relatives typically aren’t responsible for using their own money to pay off credit card debt after death. But they may be on the hook in some cases, like if they had a joint account with the deceased person or are a surviving spouse in a community-property state.
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After a family member dies, relatives are sometimes left to deal with their credit card debt.

When a deceased person leaves behind debt, like credit card bills, their estate pays off the balances. If there isn’t enough money to pay them and no one else co-signed for the debt, creditors may be out of luck.

That’s because family members of a deceased person are typically not obligated to use their own money to pay for credit card debt after death, according to the Federal Trade Commission. But there could be some exceptions, like for joint accounts and certain laws that vary by state. Here’s what to know.



What happens to credit card debt after death?

Everything a person owns at the time of their death, including everything from money in the bank to their possessions to debts they owe, is collectively called an estate. If the deceased person has debt, then the executor of the estate will go through a process called probate. The executor is the person named in the deceased person’s will to handle their affairs.

During the probate process, bills are paid off using the estate’s assets. Due to certain provisions, some assets may not be included in this process because they don’t transfer to the estate, so these won’t be used to pay creditors.

Typically, a relative of the deceased person is expected to notify any lenders — including credit card companies — when that person dies. The CARD Act of 2009 says that the card issuer must promptly notify the estate executor if any balance is due, and the issuer can’t add any more fees or penalties while the estate is being settled.

But if there isn’t enough money in the estate to cover credit card balances, the card issuer may be out of luck. Unlike some debts, such as a mortgage or a car loan, most credit card debt isn’t secured. In these cases, the card issuer may have to write off that debt as a loss.

Key exceptions where you might need to pay the debt

Although you’re generally not responsible for paying credit card debt after a relative or loved one’s death, there are some exceptions, including the following circumstances:

  • You co-signed a credit card account with the deceased person. In this case, you would be responsible only for the debt on that particular card.
  • You had a joint credit card account with the deceased person. Again, you would be responsible only for the debt on that specific card.
  • You’re the surviving spouse and live in a community property state like Alaska (if a special agreement is signed), Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma (if a special agreement is signed), Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. The obligation would only be for community property, but not separate property the surviving spouse may have.
  • You’re the deceased person’s spouse and state law requires that you pay for the debt, like certain healthcare expenses paid for with a credit card.
  • You were legally responsible for administering the estate and didn’t comply with certain state probate laws.

Credit card authorized users aren’t usually responsible for credit card debt after a relative’s death unless one of the rules above applies. That’s because authorized users were allowed to use the card but didn’t formally agree to being responsible for paying off the balance.

How credit card companies can contact you

Handling credit card debt after a loved one’s death can be confusing and emotionally difficult, especially when collectors start calling. Credit card companies may contact a deceased person’s family regarding any debt left behind, but they must follow rules established by the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA.

A debt collector can contact a deceased person’s spouse, parents (if the deceased person is a minor), guardian, executor or administrator to discuss the debt. But the debt collector can’t mislead people by saying they’re responsible for paying the debt if they’re not, and the collector can’t use abusive, unfair or deceptive practices to try to collect a debt.

You can also ask the collector to stop contacting you, regardless of whether you’re legally responsible for the debt or not. If you’re responsible for the debt though, the collector may contact you once more to explain that the creditor plans to take a specific action, like filing a lawsuit to collect the debt or confirm there will be no further contact.

If a collector does reach out about a deceased person’s debts, you can specify how you’d like to be contacted in the future. And know that it’s legally required to provide certain information to you. Don’t give out any personal information until you’ve verified that the debt collector is legitimate. And if you can, talk with an attorney before making any payments to avoid any potential problems. You can also opt to have the debt collector contact you through your lawyer.


What to do during COVID-19

If you’ve lost a loved one during the coronavirus pandemic, you may be left worrying about debt during an already-stressful time. It’s important to follow the guidelines above and remember that regulations in place under the FDCPA mean that card issuers have to follow standard collection practices. If you have other questions about how credit card issuers are responding to their customers during the pandemic, check out our list of coronavirus credit card relief measures.


About the author: Kim Porter is a writer and editor who has written for AARP the Magazine, Credit Karma, Reviewed.com, U.S. News & World Report, and more. Her favorite topics include maximizing credit card rewards and budgeting. Wh… Read more.