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How to Deal With Debt After a Spouse’s Death

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Sorting through financial matters after the death of a spouse can be a challenging experience. Are you, as a spouse responsible for credit card debt of the deceased spouse? How do you cancel credit cards after their death? How do you handle debt after death? When the heart is heavy with grief, it’s hard to focus on these things. 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 understanding the answers to these questions, and taking the steps to resolve your spouse’s financial matters are important issues to handle quickly and efficiently. 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 Spouse’s Identity After Death

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 be added to your spouse’s credit report, along with the statement “Do not issue credit.”

To further safeguard your loved one’s credit file, and ultimately your own finances, 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.

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

Canceling of Credit Card & Handling Bills

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.

If the account is solely in your spouse’s name, you’ll want to inquire about how to cancel their credit card accounts. There are more details below on how to do that.

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, which will likely result in a credit check. (You can see whether you credit can handle the inquiry generated by a credit card application by viewing two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.) 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. You’ll want to check your state’s laws and speak with the issuer about any credit card debt after the death of your spouse.

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.

Other Debts

If your spouse has unpaid debts such as medical bills, a mortgage or other items, it is wise to address these accounts with an attorney. In some cases, payment can be made directly by the deceased’s estate. Each individual case can be different depending on what state the person lived in, what kind of debt is owed and how much, and whether the person died intestate.

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