EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 24, 2014

Is widow responsible for husband's credit card debt?

Elder Q&A
Rosanne DiStefano

---- — Q: After my father passed away my mother’s income dropped drastically. For several months she used her savings to pay all of her bills. Financially she is having a very hard time. Is she responsible for all of the credit card debt that is owed?

A: This is one of those “slippery slope” questions that occasionally comes our way. It is always suggested to contact an attorney for advice regarding estate issues. If your mother is unable to afford private legal advice she should reach out to one of the legal agencies who provide service to low-income older adults at a reduced rate or no cost. If this is beyond the area of their expertise they may have a list of lawyers who do pro-bono work.

This is general information we researched to give you a sense of what your mother may be facing. Unfortunately your mother should have contacted the credit card companies immediately following the death of her husband. She should not have automatically assumed she should continue to make payments on time which ultimately resulted in draining her savings.

The first question to answer is who actually owned the debt? State laws vary so it is important to find out the guidelines of the state where the account was opened and the state of residency upon death. Community Property states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) assume the surviving spouse is responsible for any remaining debt. Even when the account was opened in only one name it may automatically become a joint account for a couple. Of course if there are no assets that is going to impact how far the credit card companies will go in trying to collect on the debt.

For individuals who do not live in a Community Property state it must be determined if the spouses were joint account holders. If the account was opened by one spouse and the surviving spouse was merely an authorized user and had privileges to charge theoretically they are not responsible for the debt. The credit card company may ask for a death certificate and information regarding the size of the estate. The surviving spouse does not have the legal right to use the credit card once the spouse has passed away if they were not a co-signer on the account. The confusing part is the widow/widower in most instances will be contacted by a collection agency. Even though the collectors may admit the spouse is not legally responsible for the debt they may put pressure on the individual to make payments to rectify the debt. Your mother should be very careful not to commit to monthly payments if she is unable to afford to do so. Credit card companies have the ability to write off the debt but this will not stop them from trying to collect whenever possible.

The Money Management Program at Elder Services has experience in dealing with issues such as you described with your mother. They may be able to write a letter to the credit card company describing the financial restraints and also work with your mother on setting up a monthly budget. For a referral call 1-800-892-0890.

Do you have a call 1-800-892-0890. Do you have a question? We encourage comments and inquiries from our readers. Direct correspondence to ro@esmv.org or Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. 360 Merrimack Street B#5, Lawrence, MA 01843. Rosanne DiStefano is the Executive Director of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc.