Ugh. There’s probably no other way to start out this piece about banks and credit card companies attempting to recoup debt after the account- or card-holder dies. Everyone in this story is angry and upset; everyone in this story has a valid point.
So, again, ugh.
The CNN item I linked to above has several first-person accounts of grieving people dealing with the aftermath of the loss of a loved one, and how that butts up against the fiscal responsibilities left behind.
A woman named Denise Townley, whose mother had passed away, received a letter from Discover (sidenote: does anyone still carry a Discover card — especially now that Denise Townley’s mother is dead? Aren’t Discover Cards like the .web of credit cards?) suggesting that Townley could either take over her mother’s cards or, barring that, Townley could go about satisfying her mother’s outstanding debts.
When Townley asked Discover how they even knew her mother had died (Discover, apparently, was not invited to be a designated mourner), they explained that Social Security told them, in the most macabre phone tree ever.
“I find this not only ethically abhorrent,” Townley told CNN, “but also irresponsible and insensitive on both parties’ parts.”
I’ll meet Townley part-way and say that it may be a little insensitive — but I can’t agree with “ethically abhorrent” or “irresponsible.” (Well, I can, but that’s coming up a little later in this story.) Townley’s mother’s debts are legitimate, and it’s not in the bank’s best interest — or other consumers’ best interest — for the bank to forgive loans because the debtor died. Estates can help with that, using the money that the deceased left as a means of covering outstanding debts.
It’s just dicey when you’re a bank trying to communicate with the family of the deceased about the debt.
Oh, and about that communication:
Deborah Crabtree is also cited in the CNN article. During her husband’s wake, Crabtree alleges that Bank of America’s Home Loan Servicing department called her home every 15 minutes, leaving “harassing messages” (her term). How many times a day? Well, according to Crabtree, up to 48 times a day.
Bank of America’s claim is that the calls are computer-generated, so there’s not much they can do about it, which is a kind of a nonsense answer because (a) it’s not like we’re living in the Time of the Terminator where computers have become sentient and there’s nothing we can do about it (even if I can’t seem to control the auto-correct in Word 2007); and (b) I don’t even want to do something pleasurable 48 times a day, by which I mean to say: 48 times a day of anything is too many times a day, so BACK OFF Bank of America.
Crabtree is suing Bank of America (special note to Deborah Crabtree: Get in Line) for their collections practices. Her claim is that Bank of America violated state debt collection laws. Bank of America, of course, has declined to comment. Or respond in court.
The article additionally points out — and I found this very curious — that the FTC, usually more consumer-friendly than not, “recently declined to impose a ‘cooling off’ period after a death, during which creditors wouldn’t be allowed to go after a debt.”
In its response to the ruling, the FTC said that the cooling-off period wasn’t necessary, since third-party debt collectors are already prohibited from contacting consumers at inconvenient times, thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.
But guess who’s not a third-party debt collector? Banks. So guess who primarily benefits from this no cooling-off period? (I’ll pretend you all said “Banks!” because I think the best of ALL of you.)
Crabtree’s suit hasn’t made it very far through the system, so there’s no update there. And, as the article points out, unless a living family member co-signed on a loan with the deceased, it’s usually not likely that the living are responsible for the dead. Most banks and credit card companies state upfront that payments on behalf of a deceased relative are voluntary.