Editorial Policy

Widow could be responsible for husband's card debt

Erica Sandberg

October 14, 2014

QHi Erica,

My husband recently died after a long fight with cancer, and he left about $9,000 in credit card debt. I'm not on the cards. Am I responsible for paying them off? I have a lot of card debt of my own. —Melba

ADear Melba,

I am terribly sorry for what you've been going through and still have to deal with. It's devastating to see a loved one suffer from such a crushing illness. And, as you now know, the financial fallout can be awful. You're left with your own bills to pay on what might be a smaller or even no income.

Whether you are responsible for your husband's card debt depends on two basic factors. The first is where you live, and the other is the way in which the account was originally granted.Ask Erica

The first factor to consider has to do with community property. A few U.S. states are community property states. They include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. Alaska is as well, but you have the option to opt in or out when you tie the knot.

If you live in one of these states, you need not be the primary account owner of — or necessarily even know about — your spouse's card (and other) debt in order to be liable for it. That is because, in general, all liabilities and assets that were accumulated during the course of the marriage are considered to be equally owned by both parties. Rather than being viewed as individuals, you are seen as a single unit when you are together. For that reason, the card company may turn to you for repayment.

Thankfully, there are some ways you may be able to get out of having to pay if you live in a community property state. One is if your husband had the card and ran it up before you were married. Then it would be considered separate debt, making you exempt. However, the creditor can still make a claim against his estate for what's due. If you were counting on the full value of whatever assets he did have, you may come up short.

Another potential way out is if none of the money he spent went toward you or any children you have. That's hard to prove; however, I've seen it play out. I once had a client whose ex-husband got a credit card while they were married and used it exclusively for vacations and baubles for his mistress. The wife was able to prove it and she escaped responsibility.

If you do not live in a community property state, you still have another hurdle to clear: Be absolutely sure that your husband did not list you as a co-applicant. If so, the bank approved the account based on both of your financial and credit information, making you an unbeknownst owner. Contact the company to find out. If you are a joint owner of the card, then the liability of the balance falls to you.

I truly hope you discover that you are in no way responsible for this particular balance. But if you are, and you simply cannot meet all the payments, try not to panic. You have options. Contact a nonprofit credit counseling agency for free budget assistance and possibly a debt repayment plan. You may also ask creditors for settlements or pursue legal alternatives.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.