Credit card debt upon death

On another board I frequent an issue came up in a thread, that I thought was an interesting intellectual thought exercise but also likely has a legal answer to as well. The focus there has been more on the ethical issues but I was curious about the legal issues and thought I would post here.

The question posed was the following:

If I had a credit card with my wife as an authorized user (not a joint card–similar to say an AMEX card where it is in my name, but I can give a card to my daughter or wife to use and I pay the bill). So upon my death let’s say I have a substantial unsecured debt to be paid to this CC company.

Is my wife or daughter legally responsible to pay this unsecured debt back (note–I am not asking ethically, but legally)? Neither of them have a contract with the CC company—that contract would be with me, and if I have no probate isn’t it then a write off for the CC company?

I would say that the contract for this unsecured debt is between the CC company and myself, and that legally the CC company can’t force my wife or daughter to pay this. Is that correct? So no harassment by debt collectors, adverse credit report issues, etc. In fact I would imagine that the credit card wouldn’t even show up on their credit report as they have no contract with the CC company.

Please note that this is an intellectual exercise only :slight_smile: I carry zero credit card debt and the accounts I do have are joint accounts, which are different as my wife IS on the account as agreeing to pay.

What say you legal dopers and/or others with experience in this arena?

Your estate is responsible for this debt. If your estate is bankrupt and money is still owed, I am not sure if they could collect from your family. I think that if your estate is bankrupt, it implies that your spouse is bankrupt as well, but that might vary by state, and IANAL.


Not a legal answer, but anecdotal. Back in the 1980s I worked in the Credit Card division of a very large Bank of the American variety. I was responsible for processing write-offs on collections of accounts where the account holder had died, or was experiencing catastrophic medical problems. There was a pattern where cardholders, upon hearing that they had “6 months to live”, would apply for multiple credit cards and run them all up to the max partying and buying their friends and family gifts (AIDS was starting up then big time). Of course, there was a level of fraud to it - the cardholders had no intention of paying. But, there was also a recognition in the bank that these accounts were not going to be paid so there was not a concerted collection effort to recover payment.

I know this doesn’t address your specific topic, but I thought you might find it of interest.

Under the existing FICO model your account should show on the credit reports of Authorised Users. Under the new FICO 08 model that may no longer apply.

If you die and it is not a joint account if your estate does not have enough money to pay your debts the surviving spoce or family members do not have to pay your debt.

My wife had a Titanium Discover Card. I was listed as an authorized user of the card, but it was not a joint account; I remember because one time there was a question about something on it and when I called they wouldn’t talk to me until I handed the phone to her and she gave them permission to discuss the account with her. When she died I called to cancel the account and in addition to having to send them a copy of her death certificate I was informed that they expected the balance to be paid.

My understanding is that if your estate has money then it is expected that the debt would be paid from the assets of the estate. But if you died with no estate and thus there were no funds to be had, then the CC company would have no recourse against the spouse it would seem to me. I am assuming in your situation that her estate had money and thus the CC companies were going after those funds.

For example when my mother died she had no estate that I recall. She was a housewife her entire life, the house if I recall was only in my fathers name, etc. This wasn’t an issue for her since they didn’t use credit cards, but if she had one with say a $2000 debt I don’t see how they could come after my father to pay it if he wasn’t part of the contract with the CC company. Now you might ask how could someone without a job, etc get a credit card but we all know that is/was very easy to accomplish in years past. So this scenario doesn’t seem improbable at all.

My wife’s estate consisted of her equity in our house and joint money market and checking accounts; she hadn’t worked for years. How she ended up with the credit card is mildly amusing, actually. When we got married I tried to have her name added to my Sears charge account, but they screwed up her name - twice. Somehow in the course of getting this corrected she got listed as the primary on the account. When Sears started the Discover Card service they gave her one (I think just about everyone with a Sears charge account was offered a Discover account). Some years later Discover started a new program called something like Prime Rate, and they gave her one of those, too. The Prime Rate program was later discontinued, and everyone who had one was switched over to a Titanium Discover Card. At some point we had gotten the original Discover account converted to a joint account, but never got around to doing it with the Titanium account.

So, the credit card company asked you to pay,** LurkMeister**, but were you legally obligated to do so? I don’t think that has been answered yet.

You’re not legally obligated to pay any debt other than a debt YOU SPECIFICALLY contracted for. It might be a question of ethics, but there is not any legal obligation to pay. The estate of the deceased has an obligation but unsecured debt is last in line, behind the hospital, the cemetary, the funeral director, the mortgage company, etc…

I was 16 years old when my mother died (my father had already died) and all her creditors called me and demanded I pay them. I was stupid, but I actually did this. I was 24 before I paid them all off.

But I didn’t know and no one told me different. Of course they couldn’t do anything to me, but that was in the early 80s and the collection agencies said they’d put me in jail and I was scared. Back then the situation was different, the collectors could call you at all hours and make all sorts of outrageous claims.

The bottom line is you can’t get blood out of a turnip. Even if have things, how you have them established makes a difference. For instance, if you set up a bank account POD (payable on death) to your son, as soon as you die that money is no longer part of the estate. So the creditor can’t collect.

And creditors know this as well. What real recourse do they have against a person that is alive? They can only report you to the credit agency. Big deal so a dead person has bad credit. What are they gonna do, dig the deceased up and put him jail.

That is the only upside to dying that I can see. You get to tell your creditors, “Yeah well just try to collect now.”

I assume this is company specific, as my previous employer (Capital One) had a policy of not reporting an account on an Authorized User’s credit report unless specifically asked to do so.

SOP, unfortunately. We’re very sorry for your loss, thank you for informing us, please send us documentation, and how would you like to make payment arrangements today? It’s trickery that the card companies use to imply that you must pay the debt, even if you may not be legally obligated to do so.

Bingo. I worked in a department that fielded only escalated calls, and fielded many calls from kids who were pissed that they had called in to report the death of their mother, and were being badgered to foot the bill. Of course, collections wants to just make it seem like part of the process – even if no one has to pay it, they want you to tell them who is going to pay it. The correct response is, of course, “I’m not making any payment arrangements, as I have no legal contract to do so with your company. Your estates department will know how to best collect anything owed.”

Sorry for the lack of cites; I’ve long since thrown out our (very thick) training manuals that cited the laws you’re looking for, and how to apply them.

As far as I’m concerned, if I die owing money to creditors and my estate can’t pay the debt, I WIN!!!


I am specifically going to instruct my daughter (my one and only heiress presumptive), “screw the ethics; do not pay any of my debts unless you’re legally obligated to.” I am quite certain that she needs the money more than the creditors.



When my Dad died I just sent his creditors a copy of the Death certificate (and signed as “executor”). Other than the phone company, that was the last I heard from any of them. I had to threaten them.

Googling “credit card authorized user” yields news articles that say that the person so designated user has no liability for repayment. There’s no indication that this changes upon the cardholder’s death.

I think what they meant was “We’d sure like to be paid, and aren’t above creating whatever impression will make that more likely.”

So there seems to be a consensus there’s no legal requirement for someone (other than the estate) to pay this debt, but a few posters seem to be hinting there might be an ethical obligation to do so. Why? (Am I just publicly displaying my lack of ethics here?)

I certainly hope you had the presence of mind to say, “Tell you what, I’ll give her the phone and you can talk to her about it. I understand that’s how you do business.”

I had to talk to some attorneys about this recently. My mother had a catastrophic stroke in January and is still hospitalized. When my wife and I went into her files in an attempt to straighten out her finances, we discovered that they were a mess. She has maxed out all her cards and her monthly income from social security and two small pensions was essentially just enough to cover basic living expenses and minimum payments on the cards. So I went and talked to two lawyers and said, “well, what should I do?” They basically said “just stop paying the cards.” “They’re gonna bitch and moan and threaten to sue, but really—what are they gonna do?” So I stopped paying them, and of course 20 minutes later the phone started ringing off the hook. Every time one of her creditors called, I just told them “look—she’s completely paralyzed on one side of her body, she can’t speak at all, and she’s hooked up to a ventilator.” “Most likely, she will be in that condition for the rest of her life, and Medi-Cal is taking what little income she has left.” Almost all of them have stopped calling now. It must just be part of doing business for them.

This issue depends heavily on whether the estate goes through probate. Probate is primarily a process for discharging debts against the estate. Typically the estate is obligated to pay valid debts against the estate in the probate process, once probate is over all debts are presumed to be discharged. There are many instances where an estate does not pass through probate. In these cases it may be possible for a creditor to attempt to attach assets of the deceased in service of a debt. It is uncommon however, and I am not sure if that even applies in the particular case of credit cards.

Well I can’t speak for anyone else other then myself. But if my wife had run up bills and then died, I would feel obligated to satisfy them. In our marriage we are together, her debts are my debts and vice-versa. So I would feel that any debt she incurred would need to be satisfied by me, because tangently I did derive benefit from whatever debt she created. Same for my daughter, as her father I would feel responsible for those debts.

I realize that many people think of CC companies as large faceless corporations and that it is okay to screw them over. On one hand I do understand that sentiment, but I know that when I do work for someone I expect to be paid, and I treat it the same way. Each person has to come up with their own values on this and in the end we each have to face ourselves in the mirror each day. I personally wouldn’t judge someone who opted to NOT pay these bills because it is indeed a personal decision and circumstances bear a big influence on the final decision.

As the OP I feel an ethical obligation to pay that debt, my question was if I had a legal obligation to do that. From what I have gathered it doesn’t appear that I have any legal obligation.

If we’re moving into IMHO territory, I’m going to have to disagree. Your joint debts (those that you both incurred, together) are your obligation, IMO, ethically. Her private debts? Not so much. My SO has been carrying a balance on his own for a long while, and I’m not about to pay it off upon his eventual demise.

The thing is, you’re not screwing anyone over. Credit card companies may seem clueless at times, but they understand that people die. They plan for it. They know that a certain percentage of their portfolio will end up being written off due to an untimely death. It’s a risk, and a cost of doing business.

When you do work for someone you expect to be paid, but what if they die? Personally, I would no longer expect to be paid. If I funded an unsecured loan to one person, I’d be going after that person for repayment. Upon their demise, I’d expect to write it off as a loss and wouldn’t feel screwed over by anyone except nature.

Unless you entered into an agreement with the issuer regarding the debt, you don’t. The estate might, but you personally don’t – especially during the initial call to inform the CC company that your beloved has passed.