What to know about debt and finances when you lose a loved one - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

What to know about debt and finances when you lose a loved one

Updated: May 16, 2016 10:25 AM
© Digital Vision / Thinkstock © Digital Vision / Thinkstock

By Andrew Housser

With Memorial Day just around the corner, it is the season for remembering those who have passed on. When you lose a spouse, parent or other loved one, it can be difficult to focus on daily activities. Managing finances can be especially difficult for the bereaved, whose minds may be clouded by grief, sleeplessness and seemingly endless to-do lists. Yet handling financial responsibilities is very important to protect the well-being of your family at this time. Here is what you need to know to cope with the financial challenges of the grieving period.

1. Notify banks and credit card companies.

Contact all credit card companies and banks to let them know that the cardholder has died. They can cancel the accounts so that they will not be vulnerable to fraud. This also can help prevent credit card companies from asking you or other family members to pay for debts that should be paid by the estate. As an added benefit, lenders will sometimes offer a grace period on payments after a loss.

2. Inform credit bureaus.

Write to each of the three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – to notify them about the death. Include a copy of the death certificate. These credit reporting companies can flag the account as “deceased – do not issue credit” to prevent identity theft. Similarly, be sure to check with the Social Security Administration to confirm that its files are updated.

3. Know your obligations.

Married couples who live in a community property state could be liable for their spouse’s debts after their spouse dies. Other family members do not “inherit” a debt. However, a person’s estate usually must repay all creditors. That means that debts will be subtracted from any money that is left in a person’s accounts. In some cases, the process of settling the estate will require selling assets to repay creditors. If a life insurance payment goes into the estate, those funds may be used to repay creditors. If life insurance goes to an individual, creditors might not be able to seek repayment from those funds. Check with your insurance company or estate attorney to learn about your particular situation.

Collectors frequently contact relatives of the deceased to try to collect payment, but generally, you are not responsible for paying a deceased relative’s debts. You have the right under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to send a certified letter to a collector stating that you are not responsible for paying the debt and instructing the collector not to contact you again. If the estate has an executor, refer the collector to that person. If you are the executor, and there are no assets to pay the debt, state that fact in the certified cease-and-desist letter.

4. Be mindful of divorce agreements.

In some situations, a couple divorces, and one person agrees to pay off a credit card. If the card is not repaid before the person dies, and the ex-spouse’s name is still on the account, the ex-spouse could be liable for the debt. In the event of a divorce, it generally is better to transfer balances to new cards in your individual names at that time to ensure you are not stuck with your ex’s debts.

5. Stop using credit cards.

Do not use a credit card that was issued in the name of the deceased. If you are an authorized user, but not a cardholder, you could face legal action for using a card that does not belong to you. And even if you would not be responsible for the card debt, using the card could make it your responsibility. You can request a new credit card account in your own name, if needed.

6. Do not fall victim to scams.

Scammers know that the bereaved are vulnerable in many ways. You might be struggling with emotion while sorting out complex matters. This is not the time to make investments or accept offers of help from untested companies or individuals. Be extremely cautious when making important financial decisions or paying someone to help you settle your loved one’s affairs.

7. Ask for help if you need it.

Most people would like to help a friend or loved one who is grieving. Take others up on their offers of assistance, whether it is a well-to-do relative offering financial assistance or an organized friend who can help you sort paperwork. If you find yourself in significant debt, consult a reputable debt relief provider to help you find your way.

The most important thing to do after a loss is to take care of yourself and your remaining family. Part of that process is to do what you can to resolve any outstanding financial matters. Exercise caution, and ask for help if needed – this is the right time to get and receive support.

Andrew Housser is a co-founder and CEO of Bills.com, a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about personal finance issues and compare financial products and services. He also is co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, LLC providing comprehensive consumer credit advocacy and debt relief services. Housser holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and Bachelor of Arts degree from Dartmouth College.