The period following the loss of a spouse or partner is an overwhelming time that carries with it many difficult decisions and issues to deal with. Getting a copy of your loved one’s credit report may not be one of the first things you’re thinking about, but doing so may help thwart identity theft and alert you of any financial responsibilities and commitments you may not have been aware of.
“The common question is, ‘Am I responsible for [my spouse’s] debt?’” says Kathryn Bossler, financial counselor for Greenpath Debt Solutions.
Surviving partners and spouses may be confused by which debts or benefits they might inherit. The answers to these questions may impact your life moving forward, so it’s important to take stock of your remaining financial commitments and work to get yourself started in a new direction.
Review your partner’s credit
When a spouse passes away, their credit file will not be closed automatically but will remain active, along with any open lines of credit.
When someone dies, a family member or an appropriate person such as an executor should send a notice letter to one of the three credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion and request that they update the credit record to indicate that the person is deceased. The CRA will then share that information with the other two CRAs so that they can update their records.
You’ll need to send the CRA copies of certain documents, including: your partner’s name, birthdate, their social security number, their most recent address, a copy of their death certificate, and your contact information as well. Identify yourself as their spouse and explain that their credit file will need to be closed.
According to Bossler, it’s important to obtain several copies of your spouse’s death certificate for this purpose and send them by certified mail to be sure they are received.
At Equifax, once proper documentation is received and validated, a ‘death notice’ is added to a deceased person’s credit report and a permanent promotional block is also added to the credit file. The ‘death notice’ may provide protection for that deceased consumer’s identification information and prevent another consumer from trying to use the deceased consumer’s ID information to obtain credit or services.
If the CRAs are not notified of the person’s death, the credit file remains inactive and accounts purge off as they reach their purge date.
Bossler recommends starting by determining amounts that may be owed. “And determine from there, what was in [your] spouse’s name only.” This may require that the surviving spouse or partner contact lenders and creditors directly.
“Follow that particular creditor’s policy about what to do,” Bossler says. This may include closing any open but paid-off lines, such as a credit card.
Determine your responsibility
If you had any jointly-owned accounts with your spouse or partner, you might be taking over responsibility for them. The deed to your house, for example, may need to be transferred into just your name and any outstanding debt may now fall solely to you. But if you aren’t a joint owner of their credit card debt, you may not be responsible for paying it.
“Just because you’re married to someone doesn’t mean you’re going to need to pay back their debt,” Bossler says.
If your partner maintained a separate estate from your own, you may be able to use this estate to pay for any remaining debts. If this is the case, you may need to notify the executor of their estate of any amounts owed, Bossler says.
And, don’t forget to consider any benefits your partner received prior to his or her passing. If your spouse was receiving or would have soon received benefits from the Social Security Administration or the Department of Veterans Affairs, you might also need to work with these agencies to receive survivor’s’ benefits and secure any future benefits you may be entitled to.
Consider additional help
You may find the process of shutting down your partner or spouse’s credit account difficult or confusing, especially after such a difficult loss. The situation can become even more stressful if you find yourself the sudden target of collection calls for debts you aren’t responsible for. According to Bossler, there are both professional and non-profit options that are available to consumers who find themselves in this situation.
The FTC also offers information on working with creditors or debt collection agencies that may contact you including sample letters you can send them and ways to submit complaints.
You may feel lost and unsure of which actions to take after such a devastating loss, but these steps and resources might be able to help you feel more confident about closing out your spouse’s credit file and moving forward on your own.