Can you imagine what people would do, if they knew that credit card debt ended when they passed away? Run up enormous balances, pay for grandchildren’s college costs and buy luxury cars, even if they couldn’t drive! However, that’s not how it works, says U.S. News & World Report in the article that asks “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?”
The executor of your estate, or the person you name in your last will and testament, is in charge of distributing your assets and that includes paying off your debts. If your credit card debt is so big that it depletes your assets, your heirs may be left with little or no inheritance.
If you’re concerned about loved ones being left holding the credit card bag, here are a few things you’ll need to know. Note that some of these steps require the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.
Who pays for those credit card debts when you’re gone? Relatives don’t usually have to pay for the debts directly, unless they are entwined in your finances. Here are some examples of when another person would be responsible for your debt:
- If they are a co-signer for a credit card or a loan.
- If they jointly own property or a business with you.
- If you live in a community property state (Alaska, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin).
- If they are required by state law to pay a debt, such as health care costs, or to resolve the estate.
How do debts get paid? The probate process addresses debts, unless you have a living trust or make other arrangements. The probate court will determine the state of your financial affairs and the executor—the person you name—or the person who is appointed if you die without a valid will—the administrator named by the court—will be responsible for clearing up your estate.
An unmarried person who dies with debt and no assets is usually a loss for the credit card since there are no assets to collect from.
If you have assets and they are left unprotected, they may be distributed to the creditor. For instance, with most assets, the bills get paid first and then the beneficiaries can be awarded their inheritance. However, there are cases, such as situations regarding a life insurance policy, where the beneficiaries are paid before the debts are repaid.
The first debt that must be paid is secured debt, like the balance of a mortgage or a car loan. The administration and lawyer fees are paid next, and then unsecured debt, including credit cards, are paid.
How can you protect loved ones? A good estate plan that prepares for this situation is the best strategy. Having assets placed in trusts protects them from probate and creditors. A trust also allows beneficiaries to save time and money that might otherwise be devoted to the probate process. It also puts them in a better position if the executor needs to negotiate with the credit card company.
Talk candidly with your estate planning attorney and your loved ones about your debts so that a plan can be put into place to protect everyone.
Reference: U.S. News & World Report (August 19, 2019) “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?”