When a person passes away, their estate pays off any financial obligations, such as their debts. However, if there aren’t enough available assets, then any remaining debts could become the responsibility of a family member. As a result, learning the process of managing those obligations is helpful, particularly if it could reduce what’s owed. Here’s how to go about negotiating credit card debt after the death of a loved one.
Establish Whether Repayment Is Necessary
Before you worry about negotiating credit card debt after the death of a loved one, it’s critical to understand whether repayment is even necessary. Credit card debt is unsecured, so paying it off isn’t an automatic requirement unless specific conditions are met.
Specific situations can trigger the need for repayment. For example, if there was a co-signer on the credit card account, then the co-signer is responsible for the debt. Similarly, if it’s a joint credit card, the other person on the account assumes responsibility.
A surviving spouse typically has to repay the debt if they were in a community property state or if there’s a state law that makes them responsible for it. In some states, there are laws that could make a parent responsible for the debt. Also, if the person responsible for administering the estate fails to comply with specific state probate laws, repayment is potentially necessary.
It’s critical to note that an authorized user on the account may or may not be responsible for repayment. Typically, they only have to handle the obligation if one of the previously discussed conditions also applies to them. If that isn’t the case, they may not need to repay it, as being an authorized user doesn’t involve formally taking responsibility for the balance accrued.
Find Out the Balance Owed
Before you can negotiate with credit card issuers regarding the debt of a deceased person, you need to find out how much is owed. Typically, this can occur when the executor of the estate informs the lender of the person’s passing, which is something the executor needs to do. However, if you have access to the person’s account (and the lender already knows your loved one passed away), you may be able to look up the balance online or by other means.
If the debt is part of the probate process and you aren’t the executor, then you may need an updated balance if any of the person’s assets were directed toward that credit card debt. The reason that’s critical is the value of the assets would impact the balance, so it’s wise to wait until probate is complete if there are available assets that could reduce the debt before you worry about repayment. If you are the executor, then you may be able to negotiate with the credit card company before the completion of any asset distribution.
The reason you want to find out the remaining balance is so you know precisely how much it’ll cost to eliminate the debt. It also gives you a foundation for any upcoming negotiations, allowing you to determine a potentially reasonable offer before you begin that process.
Determine What You Can Offer
If you have to repay the credit card debt of a deceased loved one, after learning the balance, you need to determine how much you can offer as a lump sum. This can apply both to the executor of the estate and any person responsible for the debt after it’s determined whether the estate can fully address the debt.
In many cases, if you can provide a lump sum equal to half or two-thirds of the debt, you’re in a reasonable position to negotiate with the credit card company. The reason is that managing the debt comes with costs. Similarly, handing the debt to a collection agency usually results in less than full repayment for the credit card company, as the collection agency gets a cut. As a result, if you can present an offer that’s near what they’d receive if the debt went to collections – as well as eliminate the related administrative burden – the credit card issuer may consider the debt repaid even if you can’t offer the entire amount.
Learn About Your Options
Once you establish what you’re able to pay, it’s time to get details about your available options. Usually, you’ll need to speak with a debt settlement or financial hardship department, as those are typically the groups that can handle the negotiation. When you call the main line, you may be able to use the menu options to reach one of those parties. If not, when a representative answers, tell them you’re calling regarding the debt of a deceased person and ask to get transferred to the department that handles the settling of those debts.
Once you reach the right person, outline the situation and ask them to outline your options. In most cases, three potential approaches are available. Along with a hardship plan or payoff plan, a lump sum settlement should be on the table. If so, they may give you a figure that would settle the debt. If not, you can ask for a number or move ahead and present your initial offer.
If a lump sum isn’t an option, you can also explore the two repayment plans. These are potentially negotiable as well, so you can ask the creditor to outline how they work and present an initial counter if you’re comfortable. If not, you can ask for details of the plans in writing, review what’s offered, and then call back.
Present an Offer and Start Negotiating
Once a starting figure is presented, it’s time to find a point that satisfies the lender and is within your means. Since this is a negotiation, you don’t want the first figure you present to be the outright maximum of what you could handle. Instead, it’s best to start near the lower end of what’s reasonable.
For a lump sum settlement, if you could potentially pay more than 50 percent of the debt, it’s still best to make the initial offer (or first counteroffer, if they did present a figure) near the 50 percent mark. After all, the credit card issuer may accept that amount, and that allows you to put less of your money toward the debt.
If the initial offer is rejected, don’t be afraid of a little pay and forth. When the issuer counters, you can counter back. However, you want to be strategic with your counteroffers, as increasing what you’re willing to pay by too small of an amount could cause the negotiation to fall apart.
For other repayment plans, you may have less room to negotiate. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, particularly if you’re now experiencing financial hardship due to your loved one’s passing. You can try for additional reductions in the interest rate. If that’s not possible, you can try getting the monthly payment reduced. However, with the latter, you usually need to still cover the interest and a portion of the principle, so don’t expect a reduction to the point where that can’t occur.
Get the Negotiated Deal in Writing
Once you and the credit card issuer’s representative reach an agreement, you need to get the details provided to you in writing before you take any further action, including sending any money. That allows you to review the terms to ensure they align with what you discussed. Additionally, a written agreement is a source of protection, reducing the odds that the credit card issuer will fail to follow through correctly and giving you critical documentation if they try to pull anything and you need to fight their actions.
When reviewing the agreement, make sure every detail is well covered. That should include that the lump sum (if delivered by an agreed-upon date, which should be stated in the document) settles the entire debt or the exact details of the payment plan. Additionally, make sure it says whether specific fees apply and how much they are, and for repayment plans when payments are due, the new interest rate, and the size of the ongoing monthly payment.
If anything is unclear or doesn’t align with your previous discussion, contact the credit card issuer and request the necessary updates in writing. Then, repeat the review process to ensure the agreement is accurate and complete.
Move Forward in Accordance with the Agreement
Once the agreement is in place, you need to live up to your end of the bargain. For lump sum payments, make sure they’re sent by the due date listed in the document. For payment plans, you’ll need to make the initial payment by the due date, too. Otherwise, the agreement may be void since you violated the terms.
When you make the payment, make sure you use a trackable approach. Online submissions are usually recorded directly on the account, and you may get an email confirmation, too. If you provide the funds in person, you should be able to get a receipt. By having that documentation, you have proof that you followed the agreement, and that’s helpful if issues later arise.
Follow-up with the Lender
Whether you pay a lump sum or create a new payment agreement, you’ll want to follow up to confirm that any agreed-upon actions on the part of the lender take place. That could include verifying the account is now considered paid and is correctly closed or ensuring the details of the payment arrangement are properly associated with the account.
You may be able to handle the follow-up by checking the account online. Calling the credit card issuer is also an option. But regardless of the approach, this is an important step. It allows you to take action if the lender fails to update the account properly before any related issues become unnecessarily cumbersome. So, make sure to follow up, and if anything isn’t correct, continue following up until the problem is addressed.
Do you have any other tips that can help people who are negotiating credit card debt after death? Have you had to handle a loved one’s credit card debt after they passed and want to tell others about your experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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Tamila McDonald is a U.S. Army veteran with 20 years of service, including five years as a military financial advisor. After retiring from the Army, she spent eight years as an AFCPE-certified personal financial advisor for wounded warriors and their families. Now she writes about personal finance and benefits programs for numerous financial websites.