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Husband’s Debts Shouldn’t be Widow’s Problem

By Erica Sandberg

Dear Erica,

Am I responsible for my late husband’s credit card debt? I told the man from the company that they were not my cards and that my husband has passed away, but they are not taking “no” for an answer. I never used them, and I honestly did not sign for them. My husband only used them for his plumbing business. If I do have to pay, I don’t know how I’m going to do that because I’m retired and living on a very fixed income. I am 72 and don’t think I can go back to work in today’s economy and my heath. Please help. – Miriam

Hi Miriam,

Most likely you are not liable for the debt in question — a response that I hope you find at least a little soothing. The only way you might have to take it on is if you live in a state that has community property laws on the books. These are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.

In essence, community property means that assets and liabilities that you accumulated during the course of the marriage are to be shared equally among both partners. Therefore, if you never co-signed for the account or weren’t aware that it existed, there is still a possibility that the creditor could come to you for payment.

However, even if you do reside in one of the nine states listed above, don’t panic and dust off your resume just yet. It appears that this was a credit card that your late spouse used exclusively for his company’s operations, rather than charging items for your home or for taking family vacations. If so, there’s a decent chance that he created “non-community obligations,” from which you’d be absolved.

Now, if you live in any of the other non-community property states, you can really relax. Because this was never a jointly held account, the debt he accumulated on it was his alone. To collect, creditors would have to take what they could from his estate. If there wasn’t enough to cover the complete balance due, they cannot demand the money from you or any other relative.

So what should you do now? You certainly don’t want the phone calls to continue, so let the creditor know what I told you and again ask them to stop contacting you. You can do this over the phone, but a letter is better.

Sadly, this doesn’t mean that they will honor your request right away. Because of this, I encourage you to know your legal rights. It’s not obvious whether you are dealing with a third-party collector that has bought the debt from the original credit card company, but if you are, it must comply with the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA). One of its provisions is that, if you tell collectors to cease and desist, they must do so. Additionally, they can’t say they will sue you for the debt unless they really can and will. If it’s the original issuer contacting you, the way the collector behaves is governed by state law, which is typically very similar to the FDCPA.

Communicating with anyone who is demanding money that you either don’t owe or can’t part with is stressful in the best of times. It’s even more dreadful in the worst of circumstances, like when your life partner has passed away. As this is a legal matter, I urge you to get further support from a professional. Contact the Senior Law Center for information and assistance.

Erica Sandberg is editor at large for Bankrate’s Credit Card Guide, columnist and features reporter for CreditCards.com, and the consumer protection spokeswoman for Western Union. She is a contributing personal finance writer for the San Francisco Chronicle’s online edition, and author of Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families. Prior to her work as a national money and credit expert and journalist, Erica was affiliated with Consumer Credit Counseling Service of San Francisco for 10 years.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author, and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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