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Am I Responsible for My Wife’s Credit Card Debt?

Question: In the August issue of SmartMoney Magazine, you mention a question I need an answer for: “Are you responsible for the (tax) debt incurred by your spouse?” Also, my wife has a lot of credit card debt in her name. Am I responsible for paying that off when she dies?

Peter in Nixa, Mo.

Answer: Your letter is timely. Just last week the Federal Trade Commission released a policy statement noting that debts incurred during life can be collected against the debtor’s “estate” after death. But what’s included in a spouse’s estate depends on where you live. In Missouri, where you are, only what’s in your wife’s name alone – not things that are owned by you, or the two of you together – is considered fair game for creditors.

So in the case of your wife’s credit cards, as long as you’re not a co-signer, those contracts are between her and the credit card companies, and do not involve you. You, or the executor of your wife’s estate, would need to notify the credit card companies and attach a copy of the death certificate. And get the number of a good lawyer, just in case: Experts say there have been cases where banks and collections agencies have attempted to collect credit card debt from the surviving spouse, regardless.

The issue of tax debt is slightly more complicated. If, for example, your wife has unpaid income taxes when she dies, you are only responsible for those taxes if there was a joint tax return filed, says Angel Foley, a bankruptcy attorney in St Louis, Mo. In that case the Internal Revenue Service will say both parties are “jointly and severally” responsible. Put bluntly: you would both responsible for paying that tax bill in full.

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    • This article answers several questions related to this issue, but from personal experience with the death of a former spouse I did not find certain parts of the answer to be realistic. I could not obtain a certified death certificate from the state from which my former spouse died. The creditor, HSBC Bank told me anyway they could not care less that the creditor had died, and they refused to deal with the estate. They instead told me they intended to ruin my credit. This way I understood when they made an income declaration to the I.R.S., to take place over seven years I believe, they did not have to take an immediate write off of their loss, but could pretend it was a collectable debt. In effect HSBC never attempted to collect the debt, they were only operating a scam to avoid a writedown on the debt of a card. The attorney I met with said they have no ability to sue and collect in my state, but HSBC actually developed an accounting scam for their stable of over 60 branded identity cards.

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    • What other states have the same rules as Missouri?

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