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From the Experts at Credit.com

Credit Matters After the Death of a Spouse

by Lucy Lazarony

Credit Matters After Death of aSpouse

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.


  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    Nancy – Our condolences on your loss.

    The first thing I’d be concerned about is the fact that you live in a community property state. In those states, debt incurred after the marriage is often the responsibility of both spouses. That’s not to say the credit card companies won’t write these balances off – they may – but it’s also possible they will try to pursue you for payment. You may want to discuss this with an estate planning attorney to find out more.

    As for the issue of you rebuilding credit, it’s not clear to me whether you tried to get those same issuers to give you cards or if you applied elsewhere. If you haven’t done so already, you need to get your
    free annual credit reports to see what is listed there. If the accounts on which you were an authorized user show late payments or other negative information, you can probably get those accounts removed by disputing them with the credit reporting agencies.

    You’ll also need to get your free credit score (which you can do at Credit.com) to see where you stand. Once you do that, feel free to come back here to comment. It’s a little hard to advise without understanding exactly why you are being turned down for your own cards.

  • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

    It could conceivably lower them, and keeping the cards will certainly not hurt. We wrote about it here: The Biggest Credit Mistake People Make.

    And congratulations on keeping those excellent scores.

  • kim

    what do you do for medical bills? my husband passed, the medical bills only total 1200 and they are ruining my credit. I contacted the creditors, the collections agencies, they are saying they are my bills. the lawyer said they are not my bills, they are not my bills, but the collection agencies and the credit reporting agencies keep reporting them, even after I sent the death certificate. the hospitals say they are not reporting on my credit, but they are.

    • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

      Kim —
      We are sorry for your loss. How frustrating it must be to also have to deal with credit reporting errors. Have you kept records of everything that has gone on so far? We wrote about the steps to take in disputing a credit report error here: A Step-By-Step Guide to Disputing Credit Report Mistakes. But if you have already done all that (we suggest sending his death certificate via certified mail), and the hospital and credit reporting agency are still reporting the debt, it may be time to consult a consumer law attorney. Good luck to you.

  • g

    My husbands wife died several years ago. She had opened many accounts without telling him. He handled the ones he knew of, but now we have been contacted by a credit card that he didn’t know existed. They want him to pay the balance. We live in Texas. Is he responsible?

    • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

      We are not lawyers, and it sounds like you may need one. In most cases the answer would be no. But because Texas is a community property state, we would want a lawyer there to weigh in.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    Creditors may be able to come after assets in the estate. Life insurance or retirement funds left directly to you and your brother are typically not part of the estate and are not accessible to creditors. But I am not an estate planning attorney, so if you still have questions we recommend you consult one.

  • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

    I am sorry Marilyn but I don’t know the answer. I’d suggest you talk with an estate planning attorney in your state.

  • norman

    what about carloans with spouse being the sole owner

    • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

      Norman —
      We are not lawyers, and we cannot give you legal advice. However, it seems logical that in a community property state, the car and the car loan would be the responsibility of the surviving spouse. An estate lawyer should be familiar with laws in your state.

  • norman

    would wells fargo be one of those big banks?

    • Idaho_Dave

      Bingo. Wells Fargo takes it to the extreme. One tactic corporate uses is to insist on the executor having a tax number for the estate, even when the account is interest free and thus not reportable. None of the other major banks require this and it costs simple estates an unnecessary $400 or so to file multiple tax returns that even the IRS says should not be necessary. Another tactic they like is going after anyone who has EVER signed a single credit card ticket for the entire balance due. Local officers are clearly embarrassed by the way WF corporate handles estates.

  • Ginny

    My husband is recently deceased. We have no estate, no home (we rented), our cars are paid off, and we paid off monthly credit card balances. He was the user of one Master Card Account and I was an “authorized user”. You said: “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.”
    I notified the Master Card company of his death and they told me I wasn’t responsible for his debt and to destroy the cards, to send them a copy of the death
    certificate (which I did). I got a letter from them confirming they received the into and they also said “this account is closed.” Now I have a letter from a collection agency which stated: “we are seeking to locate the person who is authorized to pay the outstanding bills for (my husband’s name). That person may be the executor, administrator or the individual who is authorized by the family or loved ones of the late (my husband’s name) to pay the outstanding bills from assets of the estate. We understand that this person is nor personally liable to pay the outstanding bills. As it is our goal to assist eht authorized person in administering the final affairs, we ask that you call our office and provide us with this correct person with whom we should communicate. (then they give their phone number).
    I’ve checked my own credit report and this bill is listed as mine, but I only was an authorized user. I hope you can help me.

    • http://www.Credit.com/ Gerri Detweiler

      Ginny – We are so sorry for your loss.

      You may not be personally liable, but it’s not unusual for the creditor to try to seek payment from the estate, which it sounds like they are trying to do.

      We can’t provide you with legal advice. Keep in mind, though, that when a consumer is contacted by a debt collector over a debt they don’t owe, they can notify the collector in writing that you were an authorized user, that you confirmed with the issuer that you weren’t personally responsible and ask them not to contact you again.

      Also if you are managing your late husband’s estate, you can tell them that you there were no assets.

      If this continues to be a problem you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or from a consumer law attorney.

  • Gigi

    My husband just passed away. All utility accounts are in his name. We were only married 2.5 years. From a previous marriage of mine my ex did not pay off bills and now my credit is bad. How do I get utility accounts into my name if my credit not good?

    • http://www.credit.com/ Credit.com Credit Experts

      Gigi —
      Our condolences on the loss of your husband.
      As far as utility companies go, call and explain the situation. They may or may not require that you pay a deposit — if you and your husband had a good payment record, you may find that you can have services transferred more easily than you think. Good luck to you.


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