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My Spouse Is Dying — How Do We Handle Credit Cards Now?

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A reader, Susan, reached out to us with a sad and serious problem: Her husband is dying, and they are wondering if the way they use their credit cards can keep her from having to pay his outstanding debts after he passes. Here’s what she wrote to us:

My husband has terminal cancer and we are looking at finances. He has a few credit cards that are only in his name, I am just a cardholder on some of them. When he dies, I understand that I am not responsible for the debt. I realize that the [creditors] will try to collect from me. What’s the best solution to protect my good credit when all this happens but not pay his outstanding debts?

We asked bankruptcy attorneys on both coasts how they would advise Susan.

Northern California bankruptcy attorney Cathy Moran, who blogs at Bankruptcy In Brief, said Susan’s first move should be to check her free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com to see if card issuers report accounts where she is an authorized user (and not primary). “You’re good, if they don’t,” she said in an email. “If they do report the account, you have to consider whether you are really only an authorized user, and if so, dispute the report.”

Connecticut bankruptcy attorney Gene Melchionne said state laws vary in determining how much of a deceased person’s bills become the responsibility of a surviving spouse.

Both expressed concern about using any card with the idea that the debt would not be repaid. Moran said Susan may want to consider terminating her authorized user status or limiting her use of those cards. “As a bankruptcy lawyer, I’m concerned that continuing to use them, knowing that you don’t intend to repay them, can be construed as fraud.”

Melchionne shared the same concern.

“In the bankruptcy arena, it is fraudulent to use a credit card with knowledge that the debt will be unable to be paid when the payments come due,” Melchionne said in an email, but added that this might not be the general law in Susan’s state. “Even if it is not fraud, there may be other reasons why she could be required to pay the bill,” he added.

Some state laws make spouses responsible for each other’s “necessities,” he said. “If there is a state law making spouses responsible for each other’s necessities (which may include medical care), the spouse can be held liable. Connecticut has such a statute, so even if the spouse were not legally liable on the debt by contract, she may be liable on the debt by operation of law.” Also, it’s possible that Susan’s husband’s assets would go to satisfy his debts before they could be inherited (so his outstanding bills could be paid even if Susan does not pay them).

But if creditors try to come after Susan? “As merely an authorized user, you will need to be clear and firm in resisting efforts to get you to pay the debt, and vigilant that your spouse’s debts don’t get reported on your report by checking it regularly,” Moran said. (Susan can also check her own credit health with Credit.com’s free credit report summary, which includes two credit scores for free every month.)

Finally, to avoid doing something that could be costly later, Melchionne advised consulting a lawyer. “This is a case where the reader really needs to consult a good lawyer and get proper advice before taking another step in any direction,” he said.

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