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Senior Spectrum Newspaper
September 2018
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Senior Spectrum Publications

This 'n That
by Anne Vargas
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“The trauma of a spouse’s death is bad enough; getting your credit card rejected days later because you’ve been widowed doesn’t make life any easier.”


Anne Vargas
Anne Vargas
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“Most people have no idea how their credit card accounts might be affected in the case of a spouse's death.”


A Year or so ago I decided it was time to get our affairs in order and “be ready” for all the necessary legalities when either my spouse or I die. We also wanted to ease the way for our children in the event of a mutual demise. This was a personal project, a journey of self-education that I opted to share with readers, resulting in a series of three articles. Much to my (pleasant) surprise I am still hearing from people who took those articles very seriously, heeding what I learned and advocated. That’s a little disconcerting since I am by no means an authority, but I did discover a great deal and enjoyed sharing it. I have all that information in a file on my desk marked “In the Event of…” Now I need to reread it.

But there is one important thing I failed to address in those articles, a distressingly traumatic situation my cousin found herself in last year as did two friends in recent months. I could have been in the same position because I had not given serious consideration to the credit card issue.

My husband and I share our credit card account. We each have our own card with our name and differing numbers but they are linked to the same account. If one of us should lose our card, the other can still make purchases. However, if my spouse should die, I could no longer use that credit card because he is the primary holder on the account and I am only the authorized user.

Here’s how it works (information from AARP):

“Most card issuers permit only one owner of a credit card account. If additional users are added to that account — each with a separate card bearing his or her own name — those people other than the account owner are deemed “authorized users.” And if the owner of the account dies, the additional users lose their authorization.

Card companies can learn of the primary owner’s death not just through customer contacts, but also via Social Security death records and credit reporting agencies. And that’s how a spouse who has been using a credit card for decades — one issued so long ago that probably neither spouse can remember whose card it officially is — can end up without a working credit card. One way for couples to avoid this problem down the road is to make sure that each spouse is the primary holder of at least one credit card, no matter whether he or she plans to use that card regularly. Now would be a good time to go through all your cards and make sure you know the ownership status of each card. You might be surprised.”

Financial planners counsel that it’s fine to have joint cards with a spouse, but it is very important that you also have your own before you go through a life trauma. One such planner related the story of a recent young widow, the mother of three children, who learned that her credit card had been canceled when she was in a checkout line with a cart full of groceries for her family.

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Another solution is to get a credit card from an issuer that permits joint owners of an account. Bank of America, U.S. Bank and Fidelity are supposedly among the issuers of such cards; there may be others. (Ours does not.) If one of the joint owners dies, the other one is considered the primary owner going forward. That is true, however, only if the account was established specifically with joint owners. In other words, you cannot become a joint owner at a subsequent date.

Listening to my cousin’s distress prompted me to double check our own credit cards accounts. Sure enough, I am only the authorized user on the account we have jointly been using for years…so if my husband predeceases me, I will no longer be able to use that card. But I do have another credit card in just my name (meaning I am the primary holder) which is reassuring, and this is what I am urging readers to have.

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By the way, my cousin had another dismal surprise as she waded into widowhood; the title of his car was in his name only. It has taken her most of a year to get that straightened out so she can sell it. We worked with our attorney to ensure our own cars, along with all our possessions, are in our Family Trust.

Focusing on all this is important but it’s also a bit disheartening, which prompted me to reflect on two of my favorite and thought-provoking quotes:

Love the people God gave you because one day He’ll take them back.


Being prepared for loss is never the same as being ready for it.

R.K. Milholland

But being ready would make things easier.