For some Americans, the financial question that lingers after a loved one’s death isn’t “What am I going to do with all this money?” It’s “Do I have to pay this credit card debt?”

It’s possible that left-behind credit card debt could be your responsibility. But quite often it isn’t.

It’s fairly common for survivors to believe that they’re on the hook for a deceased family member’s credit card debt when in fact they are not, says Michaela Harper, director of community education at the Credit Advisors Foundation. Debt collectors might even try to give survivors this impression. But Harper cautions against taking on debts that aren’t your own. “You’re not helping your loved one by impoverishing yourself and clearing debts you’re not obligated to clear,” she says.

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When it’s your responsibility

There are a handful of legal reasons you might be responsible for a deceased person’s debts. But when it comes to credit card debt, they mostly boil down to two:

  • You applied for the account with the decedent. “If you’re a co-signer or joint account holder, you, the survivor, have the responsibility of repaying the debt,” says Bruce McClary, vice president of communications for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Authorized users on an account, however, generally aren’t liable for these debts.
  • You’re the decedent’s spouse, and you live in a community property state. In this case, you might be responsible for your deceased spouse’s debt, McClary says. But you wouldn’t be liable for your spouse’s “separate debts,” the debts he or she acquired before your marriage.

If you’re a joint account holder or co-signer, notify the card issuer of the account holder’s death. Send a certified copy of the death certificate and “it’s important to ask what other documents they might require to update their records,” McClary says. Consider moving the debt to a 0% balance transfer APR credit card so you can pay it down interest-free.

If you live in a community property state but aren’t named on the account, consult a lawyer about your liability for the debts, or seek free help at a local legal aid center.

When it’s not your responsibility

Creditors and collectors can’t compel you to pay a debt that’s not legally your responsibility. But they might imply that you have an obligation to pay, says Harper of the Credit Advisors Foundation.

“They’ll say things like, ‘Where do you want us to send that bill so it’s easier for you to pay?,’” or they may say that the unpaid debt will be reported to the credit bureaus, she says. But don’t agree to pay debts that aren’t your responsibility, Harper says.

If the deceased person was the only one responsible for the debt, then repaying it becomes the responsibility of the person’s estate. Hand the credit card debt off to the executor of the estate — that is, the person tasked with settling the person’s financial affairs — and let him or her deal with the creditors.

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