When you're coping with the death of your spouse, the last thing you need is a persistent bill collector dunning you for payment of his credit card debt. Both Ohio law and the federal government have your back if this occurs. According to the Federal Trade Commission, you're often entitled to refuse to make payment for your spouse's credit obligations, but some exceptions exist.
If you and your spouse signed for the credit card jointly, you're on the hook for payment after his death. The death of one co-signer doesn't relieve the other from liability for the balance, and lenders are perfectly within their rights to pursue the other signer when one won't – or can't – pay. Being a joint signer on the account isn't the same as being an authorized user, however. Authorized users typically have no responsibility for the debt. This is an arrangement where your spouse has authorized you to charge on a card in his name.
If you didn't co-sign for the credit card, your spouse's estate becomes responsible for payment. Your spouse's sole creditors are paid according to a statutory order of priority under Ohio law. They have six months to make a claim against your spouse's estate for payment of the debt, and if they fail to do so, they typically can't collect. If they do act in time, the executor of your spouse's estate – either you or someone else – must pay the claims as part of the probate process, either with cash resources your spouse left or by liquidating property he owned. Unsecured debts, such as credit cards, are paid last, so if your spouse's estate has no money left after paying all other debts and expenses, credit card companies receive no payment. Unfortunately, if your spouse left you anything in his will, you won't receive it if all his creditors can't be paid, so in that sense, you could end up paying the debt.
Some of your spouse's assets may fall outside his probate estate, and these are not vulnerable to creditor claims. For example, if he named you as beneficiary of his life insurance policy, the death benefits typically go directly to you by contract. They're not part of his estate and they're not part of the probate process, so the estate executor can't use or liquidate them to pay his sole debts. Ohio also allows a surviving spouse $40,000 off the top of the estate for a living allowance, and this payment has priority over unsecured creditors, so you would receive this before his debts are paid. As long as you didn't co-sign for the credit cards, the creditor can't access this money.
According to the FTC, it's illegal for your spouse's creditors to hound you for payment if you didn't co-sign on the accounts. If you're the executor of the estate and a creditor contacts you, you can tell the company how to file a probate claim for payment. Otherwise, you can give the creditor contact information for the executor. You can also instruct the creditor in writing not to contact you again. If you decide to do this, send the letter by certified mail so you have a record of its receipt. You – or the executor of your spouse's estate – should also cancel all cards that you're not jointly liable for. If you're an authorized user, you shouldn't keep making charges on the card after your spouse's death.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.