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Who inherits credit card debt after death of family member?

Dear Lawyer Mark: I am very concerned about something, and wonder if you can help.

I am no longer a spring chicken, and with my health problems, I don’t think I will be around a whole lot longer. I live by myself, but my kids check on me and help me out each day.

My problem is, they don’t know that I have a whole bunch of credit card debt.

It started when I got behind on my doctor’s bills, and then I needed some more to pay for my food and medicine because my Social Security isn’t enough for all of it.

When the interest and late fees got added on, it upped my interest rate even higher, and now I have about $20,000 that I owe.

I’m worried that when I die, they will come after my kids for payment, and they live paycheck to paycheck like everyone else. What can I do?

— Petrified in Perry

Dear Petrified:

There are a number of things that you can do, but let me put one fear to rest immediately: Unless your children signed on the credit card application, the credit card companies cannot “go after them.”

In Ohio and most other states, there is a provision called the statute of frauds. In general, this statute says that unless someone agrees in writing to be bound by somebody else’s debt, they cannot be held responsible for it.

This means that your creditor cannot sue your children for a debt of yours after you die.

This provision does not, however, relief your estate of the obligation. Everyone should have a will, which tells the court how you want your property divided after you die.

Before the probate court distributes your property, however, all of your debts must be paid by your estate.

This means that if you wish to allow your children to inherit from you, you must have enough property to pay off your debt.

There are a couple of things that you can do while you are still living to pay down the debt, if you wish your kids to have an inheritance.

First, you could try negotiate directly with the credit card company, or have someone do it on your behalf.

Often, creditors are willing to settle for much less than what is owed, as a great deal of the debt may be late charges and extremely high finance charges, so the creditor never really advanced the monies to you to begin with.

If you choose a credit counseling agency, be sure to use a non-profit, accredited agency. Be very careful of the companies you see advertising on TV.

Often they are for-profit corporations that have you pay them while your credit rating plummets, and wait until after you are sued to “attempt” to settle your debt.

Another option you may have is to file bankruptcy, which could potentially wipe out all of your debt.

Because bankruptcy is dependent upon individual circumstances, I recommend you talk to a lawyer about it: most bankruptcy lawyers don’t charge a consultation fee.