When a loved one dies, the last thing you want to think about is finances and paperwork. There are so many other pressing matters like planning their funeral, taking care of their home, and processing your own grief and feelings. However, it’s important that we do take charge when it comes to your loved one’s financial and legal documents.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Happens to Credit Cards After Death?
- 1. Access the All Accounts
- 2. Get Copies of the Death Certificate
- 3. Call the Credit Card Companies
- 4. Contact the Credit Report Bureaus
- 5. Keep All Mail and Communications
- 6. Collect and Destroy All Cards
Why is this so essential, even in a time of mourning? Recently deceased people can be the target of this fraudulent activity, and scammers open credit cards in their name. As you might expect, this makes an even bigger mess of things.
Luckily, there are steps you can easily take to cancel credit cards after a death. Follow this step-by-step guide to protect your loved one’s legacy after death.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling the details of their unfinished business such as canceling credit cards can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
What Happens to Credit Cards After Death?
There are a lot of myths and misunderstandings about what happens to our credit cards when we die. The biggest misconception is that these cards are automatically canceled. In reality, these cards and accounts are typically forgotten and left untouched.
While this might be fine short-term, it can present big problems down the line. If they aren’t canceled by a surviving family member, a lot of things might happen.
- Identity theft or fraud: Scammers and thieves search through local obituaries and death announcements, targeting the recently deceased by opening new accounts, stealing their identity, or applying for loans in their name. No family wants to discover more credit card debt after death.
- Wrongful spending: Additionally, a family member might innocently (or not-so-innocently) continue to use the deceased person’s credit card.
- Aggressive creditors: Because all creditors want to make their money back, they’re more likely to pursue surviving family members for payment if these accounts aren’t handled appropriately.
- Fees and charges: Finally, these accounts rack up late fees and payments if they aren’t closed right away. This added cost falls to the estate of the deceased.
Because you want to avoid any of the above, take action as soon as possible to close these cards. This is a good time to organize all of your loved one’s financial and legal documents, so this should be a standard part of the process.
1. Access the All Accounts
The first step is also the most complicated. You need to access all of your loved one’s accounts. Ideally, this is something your loved one made simple while they were still around. They might have compiled a list of their account passwords or made you the beneficiary of their account. If not, this might be a bit more challenging.
If you’re a surviving spouse or a court-certified representative, you can directly request a copy of the deceased’s credit report from any of the bureaus. This lists all of their accounts and credit cards in their name.
From there, contact the individual banks about the best way to gain access to these accounts in this situation. You can also search their cabinets, drawers, and records for financial documents or passwords. Once you have access to all accounts, proceed to the next step.
2. Get Copies of the Death Certificate
The death certificate is a legal document proving the death of your loved one. You’ll need multiple copies of the death certificate to provide to banks and credit bureaus. It’s a good idea to have multiple copies on hand since this is something you’ll need frequently in the coming months.
Each account needs its own death certificate, and banks often require different things depending on their own criteria. Contact each individual bank to see what documentation is needed.
3. Call the Credit Card Companies
Now it’s time to close the cards. To do this, call each card issuer. When on the phone, ask for the department for deceased accounts. Typical customer service agents are unlikely to have the resources to handle this type of request.
Once you speak to the right department, let them know that you’re requesting the credit card account is closed. In addition, ask what documentation is needed and how to send it. Get everything in writing. If there are any recurring charges on the account (for subscriptions, utilities, and so on), request that those are canceled.
While this should be enough to flag the account, you still might not be done. Be sure to follow up with each credit card company in writing. Write a letter with the deceased person’s name, date of birth, Social Security number, address, and the account numbers for the cards. Also, include your own information in case you need to be contacted.
Send the letter through certified or express mail or with some form of verification. It’s at this point that the company requests a copy of the death certificate. Always confirm each step is taken and keep everything for your records.
4. Contact the Credit Report Bureaus
Closing the credit cards is only half the battle. You’ll also want to ensure you have your loved one’s credit frozen. To do this, contact the big three credit bureaus. This includes Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
The goal is to notify the credit bureaus of a death. Once you contact them, request that the credit is immediately frozen. By freezing their credit, you ensure nobody can open any new lines of credit from now on. The last thing you want to deal with is additional debt or identity theft.
Once you’ve made your first request, follow up in writing. Like with the credit card companies, write a letter including the name, date of birth, date of death, Social Security number, address, and so on. Also, include a copy of the death certificate.
5. Keep All Mail and Communications
During this process, your loved one likely will still receive mail and communications from their credit card providers. This is especially true if they owe a balance on their account. All companies want to get paid, but there’s a specific order to when and how they’re paid. Until you review your state’s laws, don’t distribute any money to debt collectors or creditors.
Monitor all incoming mail for the deceased up to 6 months after their death. You’ll want to stay on top of any additional notices or payment requests. Remember that you don’t need to pay these debts on behalf of your loved one. Debt isn’t transferred to family members after death.
6. Collect and Destroy All Cards
Finally, stop anyone from using your loved one’s credit cards by collecting them. It might make sense to use them to cover expenses for the deceased, but this is actually a form of fraud. Even if the family member was an authorized user, all cards should no longer be in use after the primary cardholder dies.
Collect all credit cards in your loved one’s name from around their home and anyone who might have had one. The only exception for this is a joint account. In this case, the card use likely won’t need to change. Once you collect all the cards, store them in a safe place or destroy them.
Protect Your Loved One’s Credit After Death
With all the emotions of a recent death, the last thing you want to worry about is your loved one’s credit. However, taking the steps above seriously helps protect their legacy and estate. This is just one of the many responsibilities that fall on family members after losing a loved one.
Consider these steps as an act of kindness and love. You’re taking care of your loved one’s finances in a deeply personal way. You’re ensuring their assets are put to their intended use, and you’re protecting them from fraud. At the end of the day, this limits the trauma and emotional cost for your entire family.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business like canceling credit cards can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
- “Credit Card Fraud.” Cornell Law School: Legal Information Institute. Cornell.edu.
- “Credit Steps to Take After a Relative’s Death.” Equifax Knowledge Center. Equifax.com.
- Kirchheimer, Sid. “Protecting the Dead From Identity Theft.” AARP. AARP.org.