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What happens to credit card debt when you die?

Credit card debt that's left after someone dies is often paid for by their estate, but in some cases, it can become the responsibility of a beneficiary. This article will cover:

  • Who is responsible for managing the debt after death
  • How credit card debt can affect beneficiaries
  • Four steps to take when a cardmember dies

Who is responsible for managing the debt after death?

The Estate

Credit card balances are typically paid for by the deceased's estate, which is everything that they owned at the time of death.

Probate

Probate is the process of gathering a decedent's assets, paying the creditors and any taxes owed, then distributing the remaining assets according to the will or state law.

Executor

The person or entity appointed by a will and/or appointed by a court to administer the estate of a deceased person is called the executor.

Family members are typically not responsible for paying the credit card debt of the deceased.

Beneficiary

A beneficiary is the person or entity that is legally designated to receive the benefits or financial assets of a deceased person.

How credit card debt can affect beneficiaries

The estate will pay off debts before going to any beneficiaries (or heirs). If the estate doesn't have enough assets to pay the debt, beneficiaries can be held responsible in several scenarios. If they're co-signers, joint cardmembers or are the spouse of the deceased and live in a state that recognizes community property (a community property state), the beneficiaries may be responsible for the remaining debt.

Four steps to take when a cardmember dies

Organize accounts

Request copies of their death certificate. If you're not fully aware of how many accounts the person had, request a copy of their credit report, which will list all of the accounts in their name. Most financial organizations will require the death certificate to access the accounts. You'll want to organize all associated financial documents in preparation for this.

Keep an eye out for any mail addressed to the cardmember. It's recommended to monitor mail for six months to a year after a death to ensure that nothing important is missed.

Stop using the credit cards

Credit cards of the deceased are no longer valid. They cannot be used under any circumstances, even for funerals and final expenses.

Transactions on these cards can result in fraud. Even if you're an authorized user or had permission to use the card before the cardmember passed away, do not use them to make purchases.

All credit cards should be collected after death and stored somewhere safe, or they can be destroyed to prevent further use.

Notify credit card companies

You should notify the credit card companies ASAP to stop interest from accruing and any other fees. This should be done for both primary and joint credit cards.

Make sure to also look at card statements to see if there are any recurring charges — you'll want to transfer these to a different card or bank account. Things like phone bills or utilities may be on automatic payment and charged to the account each month, so you'll want to take care of this right away.

You can call the number on the back of the card and speak with a customer service representative about your situation. Note that the credit card companies may ask for an official copy of the death certificate and may also need the deceased's Social Security number.

Notify credit bureaus

Notify the three major credit bureaus (Equifax®, Experian® and TransUnion®) and put a credit freeze on the deceased's account. This will prevent anyone from opening new accounts or credit cards in their name. Unfortunately, identity theft is not uncommon after a loved one passes away.

After notifying the credit bureaus and freezing the account, you can then follow up with a letter containing the deceased person's information, as well as yours.

The phone numbers for the three credit bureaus are:

  • Experian: 888-397-3742 
  • Equifax: 888-548-7878 
  • TransUnion: 800-916-8800

In conclusion

When a loved one passes away, you'll have a lot to take care of, including their finances. It's important to remember that credit card debt does not automatically go away when someone dies. It must be paid by the estate or the co-signers on the account. You'll also want to notify the appropriate entities such as credit card companies, credit bureaus and any services that are set up with automatic payments.

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