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Credit Matters After the Death of a Spouse

September 19, 2013 by Lucy Lazarony

Credit Matters After Death of Spouse

Sorting through financial matters after the death of a spouse can be a challenging experience. When the heart is heavy with grief, the last thing you want to think about is protecting your loved one's identity and forging a new credit life of your own.

But these are important financial steps that you'll need to take. Identity thieves comb obituary columns in search of victims. And establishing a credit identity separate from your spouse is essential for your own financial life going forward. This guide will show you how.

Protecting your loved one's identity

These days, an open, unchecked credit file can be an invitation for identity theft. Protect your loved one's identity by alerting the three major credit reporting bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, of your spouse's death.

It's best to put this request in writing. Your letter should include your name, address, phone number, and email address plus the full name, Social Security Number and most recent address of your spouse. Your letter also should include the birthdate of your spouse and the date of death. Be sure to identify yourself as the surviving spouse and include a copy of your spouse's death certificate.

In your letter, you'll want to request that a deceased notice and the statement "Do not issue credit" be added to your spouse's credit report.

To further safeguard your loved one's credit file, request to be notified immediately of any new credit applications made in your spouse's name. That way you'll be alerted if a thief tries to open a credit account using your spouse's name.

It's also a good idea to request that a copy of your spouse's credit report be sent to you so you'll have a record of all your spouse's open credit accounts.

Send the letter by certified mail and keep a copy for your records.

The next step is contacting your spouse's creditors and alerting them of his or her death.

Handling credit card bills

You'll need to contact each of your loved one's credit card companies and alert them of your spouse's death.

You can make this initial contact by phone call if you wish, but it's important to follow up in writing. Many credit card companies may require a copy of a death certificate. Include your spouse's credit card account information in the letter and keep a copy of the letter for your records. Send the letter certified mail.

Joint accounts

With a joint credit card account, both spouses are responsible for making payments. After the death of your spouse the responsibility falls squarely to you. You'll need to continue to make payments on any outstanding balances.

With joint accounts, the surviving spouse has two main options: close the account and pay off any balance or request that the account be changed to an individual account in his or her name and continue to pay as agreed.

When transferring the account from a joint account to an individual account, a credit card issuer may take the opportunity to re-price the card. Be aware that the annual percentage rate, credit limit, and other terms of the account may change.

Authorized user

A surviving spouse that was simply an authorized user on his or her spouse's individual credit card account may also contact the credit card issuer and request that a new card be issued in his or her name. Rather than transfer the credit terms of your spouse's card over to you, a card company may require that you apply for a new card in your name. The terms and conditions of your new card will be based on your own credit standing and income.

An authorized user is not responsible for the payment on the credit card account. But if there is a small outstanding balance on your spouse's credit card and you're interested in receiving a new card from that same credit card company, you may want to pay off the balance of your spouse's card.

Individual credit card accounts

For credit cards issued solely in your spouse's name, it's simply a matter of contacting the card issuer and requesting that the card account be closed. As a surviving spouse, you are not responsible for the payment of these accounts and many credit card companies will write off the debt owed to them.

Be aware that in community property states, credit card accounts opened by either spouse may be considered joint accounts. So in some states a surviving spouse might be responsible for the payments of credit cards opened in their spouse's name.

Community property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. If you live in these states and have questions about the payment responsibilities regarding your spouse's credit card accounts, contact an attorney.

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Meet Our Experts

Lucy Lazarony Lucy Lazarony is a freelance personal finance writer. Her articles have been featured on Bankrate, MoneyRates, MSN Money, and The National Endowment for Financial Education. Prior to freelancing, she worked as a staff writer for Bankrate for seven years. She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida and spent a summer as an international intern at Richmond, The American International University in London. She lives in South Florida.

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