You Don't Know Who Owns Your Credit Card

It's been three days since your spouse's funeral. You finally decide to leave the house and visit the grocery store for some food. But as you check out, the system declines your credit card. You try it again, but it keeps failing. Now you have no other way to pay – what do you do?

Each year, many Americans face a similar crisis. That's because so many people don't understand the structure of credit-card accounts and they're not prepared in the event of a death.

First, most credit-card accounts have a single owner. Others may appear on the account, but are simply authorized users, not owners. For instance, your spouse might own the account and add you on as a user.

For credit purposes, it makes sense. The liability for payment rests with the owner only. This means only the owner is legally responsible for paying the bill, regardless of the authorized user's spending.

Unfortunately, this also means that once the credit-card company learns of the owner's death, the account closes and any authorized users lose access. What's more, you can't transfer ownership of credit cards, meaning the surviving spouse can't take it over upon the death of the owner.

Worse, it can also spell legal trouble. If the owner of a credit card dies and an authorized user continued to use the deceased's card, the police could arrest him for fraud. That's because the estate pays off all debts. Legally, you could simply add up charges that you know the estate might not pay.

Now, there is the possibility of getting a joint credit card. For liability purposes, both owners are responsible for paying off all charges.

To apply for a joint account, both people need to apply at the same time. That way both owners have their credit history evaluated and rated. Even then, many traditional card companies don't allow for joint accounts.

In fact, according to, American Express, Capital One, Chase, Citi, and Discover all refuse to offer joint accounts. Wells Fargo and Bank of America offer joint account cards, as do a few local banks we checked out here in Baltimore.

You might consider a balance transfer, but beware... both people involved must be alive. A balance transfer moves debt from one card to another. The cards can be in different names, but both people must agree to it. If your spouse is ill and the sole owner of your cards, it might be a good idea to transfer them to cards in your name.

If you aren't sure if you have a joint account or an authorized user, call the credit-card company and ask about the account. If you aren't an owner, they may refuse to speak to you about account details. If they do, ask about liability. If it's shared, you're a joint owner.

Personally, I always recommend paying off credit-card balances every month. I also like to shop around for the best deals to fit my lifestyle. So, I suggest each spouse get their own credit cards and enjoy all the benefits that way. One of you might use a travel card for air miles and the other uses a cash-back card. That way no matter what happens, you won't find yourself unable to pay.

If you're looking for a new card, we encourage you to use the resources at NerdWallet. The site compares all the latest offers and rewards to help you make the best choice for your lifestyle.

Click here for the "Best Credit Cards of 2018."

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Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
Baltimore, Maryland
February 22, 2018