6 steps to take when a credit card holder dies

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If card accounts are not dealt with properly and immediately, problems can crop up

When someone dies, the task of notifying financial
institutions and closing credit card accounts can easily be forgotten or pushed
aside.

Unfortunately, if card accounts are not dealt with properly
and immediately, problems can crop up that make life more difficult later.
Family members and others may innocently – or not so innocently – continue to
use the deceased person’s card. Identity thieves troll the obituaries and
online records to learn about recent deaths, so they can steal from accounts or
create new ones. Banks may send out late notices and add extra fees when the
next payment is missed.

One might assume that with today’s technology, banks would know
when someone dies. That’s not the case, however. “Survivors must take action
quickly, to avoid legal or financial problems,” says Stephen Lesavich of Lesavich High-Tech Law Group. “Notification of death to the
credit card issuer is not automatic, and credit cards are not automatically
canceled upon a death.” 

If you are the personal representative or executor of
someone’s estate, take these steps to resolve their credit accounts and credit
report files in a responsible and timely manner:

1. Get organized.
The sooner you start organizing the person’s accounts, the
better.

“If you know before someone dies that you will be the personal
representative or executor, you should start putting systems in place to make
your job easier when the time comes,” says Robert Siciliano, CEO of
IDTheftSecurity.com.

When death
is expected or soon after the death, “The first thing you should do is organize all the
person’s various financial accounts. Log in with all of their passwords
and save the information in a document such as an Excel file so you can access
and cancel each account when necessary.”

As a court-certified representative or surviving spouse, you
can request a copy of the deceased’s credit report, which lists all the credit accounts issued in the dead person’s name. 

After the death, you will need to monitor incoming mail for
six months to a year. “Be sure to go through all of the person’s various
cabinets, drawers and folders, seeking out invoices and statements,” says Siciliano.

2. Prevent further usage
of all credit cards belonging to the deceased.

When someone dies, his or her credit card accounts are no
longer valid. Don’t use them, and don’t let anyone else use them – not even for
legitimate expenses of the deceased
.

Collect all credit cards from people who may have them, including
any authorized user cards, and put them in a safe place or destroy them. If you
think someone else has the account numbers for a credit card, tell them the
account cannot be used.

Using a credit card that belongs solely to someone who has
died, even if the person using the card was an authorized user or had
permission to use the card before the cardholder died, is fraud. In addition,
Lesavich notes, “A user may be liable for the new charges and old debt in
this situation.”

“If the account is a joint account, there should be no
interruption to their use of the card,” says Betty Riess, Bank of America
spokeswoman. Cardholders are often not clear about whether they are joint cardholders,
or if one of them was really an authorized user who can use the card but is not
responsible for the balance. “If the co-owner has any questions about the
status, it’s always a good idea to reach out to the card issuer,” says Riess.

If someone is an authorized user on the card belonging to a
spouse who dies, in most states, the survivor is not liable for the debt. In
community property states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New
Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Alaska, which is an opt-in community
property state), creditors may pursue a surviving spouse. If the amount is
significant and you are not sure if the surviving spouse is required to pay,
contact an estate attorney in your state.

3. Get multiple
official copies of the deceased’s death certificate.

Obtain original death certificates from the county where the
deceased lived. The funeral director who handled burial, cremation or other arrangements
may also provide you with copies of the death certificate. Get more copies than you think you need – it’s
easier than going back for more later.

You probably will want to get one death certificate copy for
each of the deceased’s credit cards, three for the three credit reporting
bureaus, plus copies for other estate purposes. Some states have both long-form and short-form death certificates, and banks will differ on which they require.





You do not want to deal with identity theft of a loved one
several years after they have passed away.


Stephen Lesavich
Lesavich High-Tech Law Group

4. Notify all credit
card companies.

All credit card accounts should be closed immediately after
the primary cardholder dies. Act quickly to avoid interest and finance charges. For joint credit cards, you should notify the
credit card company that a joint cardholder has died.

You should notify the credit card companies by phone, and
follow up by mail. 

First, call the credit card issuer and ask for the
department for deceased accounts. Talking to a general customer service
representative may not be successful. When you reach the right department, ask
that the account be closed, and where you should send documentation in writing.
Lesavich says, “Ask the credit card issuer if there are any recurring charges
on the card, and request those recurring charges be canceled.”

If interest or finance charges have been applied to the account, Lesavich says you should ask that those charges be waived because of the death.

A phone call should flag the account. However, to officially
close the account, it’s important to follow up in writing. Include the deceased
person’s name, date of birth, date of death, Social Security number, address
and credit card account number, as well as all your own contact information and
your relationship to the deceased.

Send the letter registered, certified, express mail via the U.S. Postal Service,
or via a delivery service such as FedEx, to the address indicated by the
department for deceased accounts. Save your verification of receipt of the
letter.

When a credit card issuer receives your letter, it typically
asks for an official copy of the death certificate, if you haven’t sent it
already. Some issuers, such as Discover, verify the death on their own, says
Lesavich.

Bank of America requests that you provide a faxed or legible
photocopy of the death certificate. “Depending on circumstances, we may require
a certified copy,” the website says. Bank of America may also request additional
documents.

The Bank of America website says, “We’ll assign a case number for you to use after you notify us of the death. When you submit documents to us, please include the case number on all documents for our reference.”

5. Contact the three
credit report bureaus to freeze their credit reports.

You should also contact the big three credit bureaus to freeze their credit, then follow up with a letter. Call TransUnion, Experian and Equifax immediately to request a credit freeze, which will prevent anyone accessing their credit file. 

The phone numbers for the credit bureaus are:

  • Experian (888-397-3742)
  • Equifax (800-685-1111)
  • TransUnion (800-888-4213)

Request that the credit report be immediately frozen by following the recorded prompts. Freezing the credit files prevents criminals from opening up new credit cards or other accounts using the name and Social Security number of the deceased.

“You do not want to deal with identity theft of a loved one several years after they have passed away,” says Lesavich.

Then follow up with a written request and include the deceased
person’s name, date of birth, date of death, Social Security number, address and credit card account number for all card accounts and a copy of the death certificate. You should also include your own name, address,
phone number, email address and relationship to the deceased. Send this letter by
certified or registered mail, or another method that gives you proof of
delivery.  

6. Distribute
payments to creditors.
Paying the credit card companies is last on this list for a
reason. After someone dies, all creditors must be paid the right way, in order
and at the right time. Depending on state law, you may need to wait a specified period for bills to come in, and post a public notice of death in a newspaper before you start distributing money.

Don’t let individual creditors try to jump ahead in line
and get paid first – especially if there is not enough money to go around. 

Before you pay anything, you should ask
the credit card company to submit a proof of claim for the estate, says John Caleb Tabler of Lau & Associates in Pennsylvania. You can
include this request with your written notification to the credit card company,
or submit it later.

“Make sure [any card debt] gets paid out of the assets of
the estate if there are any,” says Tabler. “Keep in mind, if you waste estate assets as a
personal representative, misuse them, or, in the case of Pennsylvania, disburse
money from the estate before there’s a formal accounting, as the personal
representative you can be found liable for debts owed.”

As the personal representative, avoid paying bills for the deceased yourself, and never commingle your money with that of the estate. You have no obligation to personally pay any debt of the deceased unless you were already a responsible party on the account, Tabler says.

“Generally, the personal representative is only responsible for making sure that debts owed solely by the deceased are paid out of estate assets,” says Tabler. “Your job is to gather the assets of the estate, then distribute it out to those parties that have filed claims against the estate or are due some payment under the will.”

Be very careful what you say to creditors who call or write, Tabler adds. Don’t say
that you will pay the amount later, or agree to a payment plan. “Any protection
a personal representative may have individually goes away if they enter into an
agreement to pay the debt of the deceased,” he says.

Some debt collectors are very aggressive, often preying on
the survivor’s emotions to try to get them to accept paying of the deceased person’s
debt. “In such a situation, the survivor is emotional and not thinking
clearly. The survivor should never admit or agree to anything on the phone. He
should ask the debt collector to provide proof of the debt in writing,” says
Lesavich.

Taking care of credit card accounts is just part of the many
responsibilities of a personal representative or executor of someone’s estate.
It’s an important part, however. By safeguarding the estate and deceased
person’s name from waste and fraud, you are helping to make sure all assets are
used the way they are intended, and that future trauma is minimized as much as
possible.

See related: Feds lay down rules for collectors calling on relatives of deceased debtors, What happens to credit card debt after death




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