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What Happens to a Credit Account When Your Spouse Dies

After a spouse's death, losing access isn't uncommon

erasing a Credit Card

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Most people have no idea how their credit card accounts might be affected in the case of a spouse's death.

The trauma of a spouse’s death is bad enough; getting your credit card rejected days later because you’ve been widowed doesn’t make life any easier.

Unfortunately, losing access to credit cards after a spouse has died isn’t a rare occurrence, according to financial planners. And when a woman gets blindsided by a card cancellation soon after her husband’s death — that’s usually how it runs along gender lines, say planners — what might be a minor inconvenience at another time can feel like ripping a bandage off an unhealed wound.

Tammy Wener, a financial planner in Lincolnshire, Ill., says that these post-widowhood, out-of-the-blue credit cutoffs have hit at least three of her clients.

One, a woman in her 40s, widowed only weeks earlier — the mother of three young children — learned that her credit card had been canceled when she was in a checkout line with a cart full of groceries for her family. “She’s of course in tears at the store,” says Wener. “It’s like a slap upside the head.”

Barbara Shapiro, a financial planner in Chestnut Hill, Mass., says that after her husband died in 2016, she called up one credit card issuer to have his name removed from the card account they shared. “We had excellent credit and never carried a balance,” she says. “I erroneously assumed it wouldn’t be a big deal to take his name off the card.” But, she says, “before I finished my sentence, they said, ‘Account closed.’ ”

Behind these credit cutoffs for widows is the practice of most card issuers to permit only one owner of a credit card account. If additional users are added to that account — each with a separate card bearing his or her own name — those people other than the account owner are deemed “authorized users.” And if the owner of the account dies, the additional users lose their authorization.

Card companies can learn of the primary owner’s death not just through customer contacts, but also via Social Security death records and credit reporting agencies.

And that’s how a spouse who has been using a credit card for decades — one issued so long ago that probably neither spouse can remember whose card it officially is — can end up without a working credit card.

One way for couples to avoid this problem down the road is to make sure that each spouse is the primary holder of at least one credit card, no matter whether he or she plans to use that card regularly.

Another solution is to get a credit card from an issuer that permits joint owners of an account. Bank of America, U.S. Bank and Fidelity are among the issuers of such cards; if one of the joint owners dies, the other one is considered the primary owner going forward.

That’s true, however, only if the account was established specifically with joint owners. Should a married couple’s card be issued with one spouse as the primary owner and the other as the authorized user, the authorized user could, again, be cut off upon the primary owner’s death.

Widows who had been authorized users on a canceled card can apply for a new one.

In fact, Wener’s client received a new card from the same company that issued the card she’d tried to use to buy groceries. But because her husband had been the higher earner in their household, her new card had a lower credit limit and a higher interest rate, Wener says.

These cancellations have been problematic for widows, acknowledges Rita Cheng, a financial planner in Gaithersburg, Md. “There’s an element of inconvenience,” she says.

On the other hand, Cheng points out that cutting off credit to people who have died is a valid fraud prevention measure. “There are a lot of thieves that steal dead people’s identity,” she says.

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