What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?

Credit card debt doesn't just go away when you're gone, but the liability doesn't always fall to your loved ones by default either. It depends on the kind of account, where you live and more.

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While certain debts — like student loans — may be wiped clean when you die, credit card debt doesn’t simply disappear.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean your loved ones will be on the hook for paying off that debt. It can depend on a variety of factors, including exactly how you're related, how the account was set up, and even what state you live in.

Here's who has to pay when a person with credit card debt dies, as well as some potential steps you or your loved ones might need to take.

Who is responsible for a deceased person’s credit card debt?

When you die, you leave behind an estate, or net worth, which is the difference between your assets and liabilities. The executor of the estate — often named in a will, or else appointed by a court — will pay existing debts out of that estate, provided it's solvent.

But it gets a little more complicated if an estate doesn't have enough assets to pay off the debt. When it comes to credit card debt specifically:

  • Authorized users are not required to make credit card payments, whether the primary cardholder is alive or dead.

  • But living co-signers and joint account holders would have applied for the account with the decedent, so they would be responsible for the entire balance — regardless of who ran up that balance — if the decedent’s estate can’t cover it.

  • And in a community property state, credit card debt may be owed by a surviving spouse.

  • Arizona.

  • California.

  • Idaho.

  • Louisiana.

  • Nevada.

  • New Mexico.

  • Texas.

  • Washington.

  • Wisconsin.

*Alaska, South Dakota and Tennessee allow spouses to opt-in to a community property arrangement if they choose.

If you're not sure whether you fall into any of these categories, you may need to consult an attorney. But in short, if you aren’t a co-signer or joint account holder, or a spouse living in a community property state, you aren’t legally required to pay a deceased person’s credit card debt. It becomes the responsibility of the estate.

If you're not responsible for the credit card debt

You don't need to do much, other than hand off the debt to the executor of the estate, who'll determine whether there's enough to cover it.

If there's not, the lender is usually out of luck and ends up writing it off. Lenders can appeal an executor's determination here, but in effect, the credit card debt is likely to die with the borrower.

Nerdy tip: Of course, if you yourself are the executor, then you'll have plenty of other responsibilities to tend to — but they're largely administrative, not financial. An executor is not required to cover an estate's debts out of pocket.

If you are responsible for the credit card debt

You'll need to inform the credit card issuer of the account holder's death so that the account can be shut down and no further charges can be accrued. As proof, you'll likely need to submit a certified copy of the death certificate, along with any other documents the issuer may need in order to update records.

If you end up owing a large sum that you can't tackle immediately, you might consider looking into a balance transfer credit card, at least as a starting point. It can give you some interest-free breathing room as you determine the best way to pay off the debt.

What to do about harassment from creditors? 

Even if the debt responsibility doesn't fall to you, it doesn’t mean you won't be hassled to make credit card payments on behalf of a deceased loved one. Lenders may try to collect from you if the estate doesn't — or can't — pay out.

But regardless of whether you're actually liable for the debt, you can stop creditors from harassing you about it. Per the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, you can send a letter to creditors informing them that you don’t wish to be contacted again. (Make a copy of such letters for recordkeeping.)

If the calls continue, report the misbehavior to:

It’s illegal for creditors to call you after you’ve specifically requested that they stop.

What to do with the credit cards themselves?

Once credit card debt is paid out of the estate, the credit card companies should write off any existing debt, and the cards should be destroyed.

You can do this yourself, or you can send the cards back to the issuer.

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