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What happens to credit cards after a cardholder dies?

March 30, 2020
10 min read
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Death isn't an easy topic, but you should know what happens to credit card debt, authorized users and rewards after someone dies. Today we'll supply answers and discuss what a cardholder can do to ease the process for their survivors.

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What happens to credit card debt after death?

(Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images)
(Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Credit card debt doesn't disappear when a cardholder dies -- it is paid off through their estate (which consists of everything owned at the time of death). If the estate's assets aren't enough to pay all debt, some creditors may not get paid.

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Even if the estate's assets aren't enough to pay off all credit card balances, authorized users and family members generally aren't responsible unless one of the following situations applies:

  • You co-signed the credit card account with the deceased
  • The account is a joint credit card account that you shared with the deceased
  • You’re the surviving spouse, live in a community property state and the debt was acquired during marriage
  • You’re the surviving spouse and state law requires that you pay for the debt
  • You were legally responsible for administering the estate and didn’t comply with certain probate laws

Related reading: 5 things to understand about credit before applying for cards

What steps should be taken when a credit cardholder dies?

Our friends at Bankrate and creditcards.com (two companies also owned by The Points Guy's parent company, Red Ventures) suggest taking the following steps once a credit cardholder dies if you are the estate executor (named in the will):

  1. Organize the financial accounts of the deceased, request a copy of his/her credit report and monitor their incoming mail.
  2. Prevent further credit card usage by stopping recurring payments and safely storing or destroying all cards (including authorized-user cards).
  3. Get multiple copies of the death certificate from the county where the deceased lived.
  4. Notify credit card companies of the death by calling the number on the back of each card and following the representative's instructions.
  5. Contact the three credit card bureaus to request a credit freeze for the deceased and flag their credit report as “deceased.”
  6. Distribute payment to creditors in the right way, in order and at the right time.

Related reading: 5 ways to use credit cards responsibly

Steps to take before death

You can help make things easier for your estate executor by not carrying debt on your cards and checking your credit report regularly. If you don't want to share your account log-in information with your spouse or executor, it may be useful to at least share a list of your current credit card accounts, including the authorized users and recurring charges on each account. This list will help your survivors contact the credit card companies and authorized users, as well as cancel or make other arrangements for recurring charges.

Related reading: 3 ways to pay off credit card debt

Can authorized users or a spouse use an account after the primary cardholder dies?

(Photo by georgeclerk/Getty Images)

No. As soon as someone dies their credit card accounts become invalid. Using the credit card account of someone who has died -- even as an authorized user or spouse, or for legitimate expenses of the deceased -- is credit card fraud. As discussed in the previous section, after the primary cardholder dies, the surviving spouse or estate executor should notify relevant credit card companies and close the accounts.

Joint credit card accounts can continue to be used without any issues. But on traditional credit card accounts with a primary cardholder, authorized users or the spouse cannot take over the account, change the name on the account or otherwise continue to use the account after the primary cardholder dies.

Related reading: Everything you need to know about authorized users

Steps to take before death

With some couples, one person is the primary cardholder on all credit card accounts. Although their partner may be an authorized user on some or all of these accounts, this will leave a survivor without any active credit card accounts if the primary cardholder dies. So it's generally a good idea for each member of a couple to have at least one credit card for which they are the primary cardholder -- or for the couple to have a joint credit card account that they share.

Related reading: Two-player mode: Credit card strategies for couples

What happens to credit card rewards after death?

The more space you have on that credit card, the better off you'll be. (Photo by jacoblund/Getty Images)
(Photo by jacoblund/Getty Images)

Most credit card rewards programs specify in their terms and conditions what happens to the accumulated points if the primary account holder dies. Here are the rules of many of the major credit card rewards programs:

American Express Membership Rewards: If we cancel your linked card account in the event of your death, your executor or personal representative may request to use the points in your program account in a one-time redemption by calling us.

Related reading: Choosing the best American Express credit card for you

Bank of America Rewards: If the card account is closed in connection with a death or incapacity of the card account owner, points eligible for redemption may be redeemed if an authorized representative of the estate, as determined by us, requests points redemption within 57 days of an account closure. Whether points are eligible for redemption depends on the final status of the account, is subject to the account being closed and paid in full, and is in our sole discretion. Rewards will only be issued upon request and in the name of the deceased primary cardholder. In the event redemptions are mailed, they are sent in the name of the deceased primary cardholder and to the address we have in our system of record for that person.

Related reading: The best Bank of America credit cards

Capital One Rewards: Your rewards are yours for the life of the account -- they will not expire. But if your account is closed, you will lose any rewards you have not redeemed.

Related reading: The best Capital One credit cards

Chase Ultimate Rewards: Points earned are not the property of the cardholder and are not transferable, have no cash value, and cannot be used as payment of any obligation to us or our affiliates, except to the extent specifically enumerated in the redemption rules. Any points accrued shall be permanently forfeited if your account has been closed, or upon the cardholder’s death.

Related reading: Maximize your wallet with the perfect quartet of Chase credit cards

Citi ThankYou: You will lose your points upon your death, and your estate, successors and assigns have no property rights or other legal interests in such points, except under this circumstance:

If we receive a written request within one year of your death from the executor or administrator of your estate, along with evidence satisfactory to us of your death and the identity and appointment of the executor or administrator, we can allow points remaining in your ThankYou account to be redeemed for Cash Rewards. Contact the ThankYou Service Center at 1-800-842-6596 for more information.

Related reading: The best Citi credit cards

Discover Rewards: We will credit your account with your Cashback Bonus balance if your account is closed or if you have not used it within 18 months.

Related reading: Your ultimate guide to Discover cards

Wells Fargo Go Far Rewards: If you close your credit card account, or if it is closed for any reason, you will forfeit your points and any pending points the day your credit card account is closed.

Related reading: Don’t overlook Wells Fargo credit cards

Although the official stances of many credit card rewards programs are bleak, some programs may provide better options in practice for at least some cardholders. For example, creditcards.com found that Chase may redeem the available points for their cash equivalent (1 cent per point), subtract any balance on the account and mail a check to the estate once the death of a cardholder is confirmed.

If the credit card of the deceased earned airline miles or hotel points instead, the executor should check the policy of the individual program since the points or miles will be in the airline or hotel loyalty account and not with the credit card issuer. See the article listed below for more details.

Related reading: What happens to your points and miles after you die?

Steps to take before death

It's best to avoid hoarding points and miles since programs can devalue their rewards, programs can shut down and your survivors may not be able to transfer or cash out your rewards after your death. If you are sitting on a large stash of rewards, consider booking a trip with your loved ones using these rewards or at least determine whether the rewards could be transferred or otherwise cashed out upon your death.

Further reading: Why points and miles are a bad long-term investment

Related guides

Featured image by (Photo by Isabelle Raphael / The Points Guy)

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  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

    Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points
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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases