What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?

What Happens To Credit Card Debt When You Die
Key Takeaways:
  • After a cardholder dies, stop using any authorized user cards and alert credit card companies and credit bureaus immediately.
  • Unless you’re a co-signer on their accounts or a surviving spouse in a community property state, you’re not responsible for a person’s credit card debt after they die.
  • Check your life insurance, retirement, and trust beneficiaries regularly to make sure your assets and your heirs are protected from credit card companies after you die.

Worrying about your estate and planning for the future is important. Credit card debt is common, and you might be worried that your spouse or children will be saddled with your debt should something happen to you before it’s paid off.

When you die with credit card debt, your estate may have to repay some of the debt, but your heirs usually won’t. 

Who is responsible for credit card debt after death?

It’s illegal for debt collectors to say your friends and family are responsible for a debt they don’t owe. It is legal, however, to ask them to pay voluntarily. So they should know their rights before you pass.

Almost all credit card debt is unsecured. That means a credit card company can’t take an asset that belongs to you if the debt remains unpaid. When you die, a probate court might decide how to distribute some of your assets, and that’s where credit card companies can go to try to be paid back. If you have cash in checking or savings accounts, then credit card companies may be able to take some of it to pay off any remaining credit card balances.

There are two big exceptions: joint accounts and accounts of married people in community property states.

Joint accounts and community property states

Joint accounts and accounts where someone else has co-signed for your credit card are treated differently. These might be credit cards for college students or for people with lower credit scores or a shorter credit history. If your account has a co-signer, then they’ll still be responsible for paying off your debt after you die. 

If you have a co-signer on your credit card, you can check with your credit card company a few times a year to see if your credit score has improved enough to remove the co-signer.

Accounts owned by married people in community property states are also treated differently. Those states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Texas, and Washington. Generally speaking, in those states credit card debt that you take out after getting married is the responsibility of both spouses. So if your spouse is still alive, they’re responsible for your credit card debt. That’s true even if they’re not an authorized user on your credit cards.

Is an authorized user responsible?

If someone makes you an authorized user on their personal credit card and then dies, you’re not responsible for their credit card debt unless you’re a co-signer on the account or married to them in a community property state.

But as soon as you learn the person has died, you should stop using the authorized user card. If you keep using an authorized user card after the account owner has died, you could even be charged with fraud.

Are family members responsible for deceased credit card bills?

Except for spouses in community property states and co-signers, family members aren’t responsible for credit card bills after someone dies, even if they inherit money from the person who died. Instead, the estate handles those bills. If the estate doesn’t have enough money to pay them off, then no one else has to pay them.

Is the beneficiary or the executor responsible for debt?

The executor, also called a personal representative or administrator, of a dead person’s estate handles telling their creditors the account owner has died, finding out how much the estate owes each creditor, and telling the creditor where and how they can provide evidence of the debt.

Life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and living trusts are usually not treated as part of a person’s estate, so credit card companies can’t go after the beneficiaries of those accounts unless the beneficiary is also a co-signer on the account, or a surviving spouse in a community property state.

Four steps to take as soon as a cardholder dies

  1. Stop using authorized user cards immediately.

  2. Notify each credit card company separately to tell them the cardholder has died.

  3. Notify the three major credit bureaus so that the cardholder’s credit report can be frozen.

  4. If you’re a co-signer or surviving spouse in a community property state, make sure you know how to access monthly credit card statements and continue to make payments on the account to avoid late fees, penalties, and interest charges, or negative marks on your credit report.

Which assets are protected after death?

After you die, many of your assets may be transferred to heirs without becoming part of your estate. That means your assets may already be more protected from credit card companies than you think.

  • If you have a life insurance policy, then when you die that will be paid out to your beneficiaries directly and isn’t considered part of your estate, unless you name your estate as a beneficiary on your policy.

  • Retirement accounts like 401(k)’s and IRA’s are transferred directly to your beneficiaries, so credit card companies can’t go after that money.

  • Living trusts are another way to protect your assets from credit card companies after you die. They are more complicated to open than life insurance policies or retirement accounts, so you’ll want to consult a professional to get one set up properly in your state.

  • When you make a Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) or Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) account, that money already belongs to the beneficiary even if you still control it, so it won’t be part of your estate and credit card companies can’t go after it.

These accounts work best if you make sure the beneficiaries are kept up to date. For example, if you have a beneficiary who dies before you, and you forget to update your accounts, then the balance may become part of your estate and vulnerable to credit card companies. Log into your account online or call once or twice a year just to ensure your beneficiaries are up to date and still reflect your current wishes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is credit card debt deducted from life insurance proceeds?

Life insurance is paid out directly to the beneficiaries named on the policy, so it usually doesn’t have to be used to pay back your credit card debt after you die. If you forget to name beneficiaries, or your beneficiaries die before you, then your life insurance might be paid to your estate instead, where credit card companies can access it. It’s important to make sure your beneficiaries are always up-to-date.

How do credit card companies know when someone dies?

After someone dies, their finances are handled by an executor or personal representative, who is either someone named in the will or someone appointed by a court if there wasn’t a will. The executor should contact all three major credit bureaus to tell them about the death and ask for a copy of the dead person’s credit report, then write to each credit card company to tell them about the death. The executor may need to provide a copy of the death certificate as well.

Are any debts forgiven when you die?

When you die, some kinds of debt are automatically forgiven, like federal student loans. Other kinds of debt, like credit cards, personal loans, car loans, and mortgages are transferred to your estate. If there’s a co-signer on your loan, or you live in a community property state and your spouse outlives you, then he or she might still be responsible for paying off some of your loans.