This is quite a personal column for me. But I want to help other consumers learn from an unfortunate experience that happened to my family. I also hope sharing our experience with credit card issuers will humanize what people are going through after a loved one's death to find a better process.

My father passed away about a month ago.

As much as my family and I miss him, we also marvel at the amazing legacy he and my mom created. Their story is the American Dream epitomized.

My dad immigrated to the United States 53 years ago to pursue a master’s degree. He came ahead of my mom and two sisters — a toddler and one who wouldn’t be born until 10 days after my dad had to leave for school. They were reunited in the U.S. after three years, and I was born seven years later.

All my parents wanted was for their children to have a better life in the United States. We, their children and their grandchildren and other extended family members they helped bring to the country, are all lucky because of them.

This wasn’t the tribute column I wanted to write about my dad. I wanted to share the things my dad taught me, including how to be a savvy consumer.

But instead, this is an educational column as we learned the hard way the difference between joint credit card accounts and authorized users.

Less than two weeks after my dad’s death, my mom’s access to their main Bank of America credit card was suddenly cut off with no notice — leaving us scrambling with notices of automated payments for bills suddenly getting rejected. I had to help her re-apply for her own card and she was quite upset when a representative told her (we now know erroneously) that she may not have access to the nearly $500 in cash rewards they had built up on the now-closed card.

In the course of researching what happened, I was surprised to learn that the majority of U.S. credit card issuers do not offer spouses a joint credit card account. Most have designated one spouse as the primary holder and the other as the authorized user, which gives them access to the account and the benefit of the credit history (or also negative reports if you’re behind).

However, the authorized user is not liable for the debt, so when the primary account holder dies, that cuts off access to the account for the authorized user.

After my dad died, I stayed an extra week with my mom. One of my sisters and I systematically started notifying places like Social Security and his insurance of his death. We got through a lot, but waited on some, like the banks, because we needed a copy of the death certificate.

 

Fast action 

The bank found out about my dad's death indirectly through us because a partner company happened to call my mom about a money market account that had expired and the representative wanted to know if she wanted to renew. After we verified he wasn't a scammer (because that happens these days, too), we told him of my dad’s passing. That notified Bank of America, which within three business days shut my mom out of the account without notification.

Talk about efficiency when you don’t want it.

As I've told the bank officials, I’ve been a consumer columnist for nearly 20 years so I understand protecting an account from fraud or identity theft. I also understand that an authorized user is not liable, though frankly the estate of the spouse, which transfers to the surviving spouse, would still be responsible.

And while I understand that our situation was highly unusual with the timing and notification, I still implored them to consider how they would proceed if something similar happened so a grieving family doesn't have to deal with this within two weeks of the death.

I understand it’s perhaps not feasible, but a call or email explaining that the account needed to be closed and offering to help my mom transition to her own card would have been so much better for her than what happened.

 

Bank responds

Bank of America spokeswoman Betty Riess apologized on behalf of the bank and said the bank would take my feedback into consideration for improving their process.

Ironically, Bank of America is one of only a few card issuers that offers joint accounts, but for some reason when my mom applied for the card, my dad was named the primary user and she was an authorized user.

I checked with 12 regional and national banks for this column to try to get a comprehensive list. The issuers who offer joint accounts are Bank of America, U.S. Bank, Fidelity and PNC. Discover and Capital One used to offer joint accounts, but phased them out for new accounts and grandfathered in old ones. Fifth Third, Wells Fargo, Citizens, Huntington, Citi and Chase only offer authorized user accounts.

Bank officials also told me that usually they are notified about a death by the family or sometimes the Social Security or credit bureaus.

Ted Rossman, an industry analyst for Creditcards.com, was surprised to hear what happened to my parents’ account and how quickly it was shut down.

“You’re right, it is unfortunate that Bank of America didn’t notify your mom. That would have been good customer service,” he said.

Rossman suggested consumers check to see if their account is an authorized user account and if it’s possible to switch it to a joint account. Banks said their policies differ, some will allow a credit-worthy authorized user to join the existing account and others said a new joint account would need to be opened.

If your bank doesn’t offer joint cards, it’s a good idea for each spouse to have at least one card in his or her own name.

“You don’t want a situation where you’re cut off from funds in the event of an emergency,” he said.

 

Beacon Journal consumer columnist and medical reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty