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When your spouse or partner dies, you have a lot to deal with. Even as you're grieving the loss, you must keep managing daily tasks like paying the bills. Funerals can be costly, and without your spouse's income, you may be struggling to cover your expenses. If you were planning on relying on your deceased spouse's credit card to help, that unfortunately may not be possible.
You are not allowed to use your spouse's credit card after they die unless you are a joint account holder on the card. If the card is in your spouse's name alone, using the card is considered fraud—even if you are an authorized user. Even though financial details may be the last thing you want to deal with at this difficult time, it's important to determine your rights and responsibilities when it comes to your deceased spouse's credit cards.
Am I Responsible for my Deceased Partner's Credit Card Debt?
Whether you are liable for your deceased partner's credit card debt depends on the type of credit card account and the state where you live. If you and your spouse are joint account holders on a credit card, you are both equally responsible for the debt on the card, no matter who made the charges. Joint credit card accounts are fairly rare these days, so if you and your spouse share a credit card, it's probably because one of you is the account holder and the other is an authorized user. Check the terms of your credit card agreement or contact the card issuer to find out.
If you are an authorized user on your spouse's credit card, or if the credit card is in your spouse's name alone, you generally are not required to pay those debts unless you live in a community property state. In these nine states, any debt incurred by one spouse is considered the responsibility of both spouses. That means you will be responsible for your deceased spouse's credit card debt, even if you're not a joint account holder or authorized user on the card.
The community property states are: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin; in Alaska, spouses can choose to make their property community. Specific laws regarding community property may vary from state to state, so you should check with your state's attorney general's office or contact an attorney specializing in estate law to clarify your responsibilities for your spouse's credit card debt.
After your partner or spouse dies, you may also be liable for any debt you cosigned or that was held jointly. Mortgages, auto loans and home equity loans are common examples of debt commonly shared with a partner that may now be solely on your shoulders. Depending on the laws in your state, you may also be responsible for your deceased spouse's medical debt.
What if your spouse or partner died with credit card debt for which you are not responsible? In most cases, the credit card balance will be paid using the assets in your spouse's estate.
If you're unsure of what debts you are and are not responsible for, the best approach is to consult an attorney before making any decisions or payments. If an attorney is not an affordable option, reach out to your spouse's lenders to get more information.
Next Steps After a Cardholder Dies
When your spouse passes away with existing credit card debt, there are some important steps you should take to protect your credit score.
- Stop using their credit cards, even if you are an authorized user. Because using a credit card on which you are not the account holder constitutes fraud, stop using your spouse's cards immediately to avoid any issues. While your creditor may be understanding of the situation, it'd be best to avoid the problem altogether. If you or your spouse previously set up any automatic payments to be made with these credit cards, you'll need to change the method of payment to a credit card or bank account for which you are the account holder if you weren't paying from a joint account.
- Notify the credit card companies of the death. If the card was in your spouse's name alone, ask the card issuer to close the account. If it was a joint credit card account, explain to the credit card issuer that one of the account holders is deceased. The credit card company will typically give you the option to keep the account open in your name, but may ask you to fill out a new credit application and agree to new credit terms.
Even if you don't plan to use the joint credit card, think twice before closing the account, especially if it's a card you've had for a long time. Closing a credit card account can hurt your credit score if it increases your credit utilization ratio.
- Notify the credit bureaus of the death. Eventually, the credit card companies will report your spouse's death to credit reporting agencies, but it might take a while. In the meantime, criminals could try to steal your spouse's identity by applying for new credit in their name. You can help prevent this by notifying the three major consumer credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) yourself. Each credit bureau has a slightly different reporting process, but you can generally notify the bureaus by mail or online. You'll need your spouse's Social Security number and a copy of their death certificate.
- Review your spouse's credit report. In addition to alerting credit bureaus of your spouse's death, it's a good idea to request a copy of your spouse's credit report. The report will provide a list of your partner's creditors so you can make sure each of them is notified of the death and watch for any incoming bills.
- Pay any bills for which you are responsible. If you and your spouse have jointly held credit cards or other joint credit accounts, such as your mortgage, do everything you can to pay these bills on time. Even one late payment can cause your credit score to dip, and maintaining good credit now may be more important than ever.
If you are in a community property state, you are responsible for all of your spouse's credit cards. Even though you will be closing the accounts, make sure to pay the final bill on time, or your credit score may suffer. If making minimum payments will be difficult if not impossible, reach out to the credit card issuers to see if they can offer some accommodation while you figure out the way forward financially.
Unless you live in a community property state, don't make any payments on credit cards on which you're an authorized user or cards belonging to your spouse alone. Because married couples have separate credit reports and credit scores, ignoring a bill for which you're not responsible won't hurt your credit score.
Where to Look for Financial Help After a Spouse's Death
The death of your spouse could leave you in financial straits, especially if your deceased partner was the primary breadwinner, managed all your finances, or had debt you didn't know about until they passed away. If you're having trouble paying your bills or are struggling with more debt than you can handle, credit counseling can help.
Certified credit counselors help individuals learn how to pay down debt and gain control of their finances. They typically work for nonprofit organizations and services and offer their services free or for a small fee. Your credit counselor will meet with you to discuss your financial concerns and help you develop a plan for getting your debt under control.
To ensure you're working with a reputable credit counseling agency, start your search with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, Financial Counseling Association of America or the U.S. Department of Justice website, where you can find lists of approved credit counselors by state.
Credit card companies and debt collectors cannot require you to pay your deceased spouse's credit card debts if you're not legally responsible. Although they may contact you to ask questions, they shouldn't harass or threaten you. If you're being bothered by credit card companies or debt collectors, you should file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and report the calls to the attorney general in your state.
If you're not sure whether you're liable for the debts and collection agencies continue to call, you may want to consult a lawyer with experience in estate law. If that's beyond your budget, look for local legal aid offices that can provide low- or no-cost services. You may also qualify for financial assistance that could help with housing, food, household goods and more.
Protect Your Credit
If your spouse or partner left behind debts for which you are responsible, paying those debts will help ensure your credit score doesn't suffer and alleviate some financial issues and stress you'd rather not deal with during this time. Learning to live without your spouse or partner will take time; becoming financially self-sufficient is part of that process.