Sorry your mom’s dead; now give us some money

Bills can often pour in after a family member’s death. Dreamstime/TNS

It’s bad enough that people have to struggle to cancel unwanted contracts and subscriptions — a needlessly difficult process that some companies seem to impose deliberately in hopes of raking in extra fees.

It’s worse if you also happen to be dead.

Or if you’re the next of kin of someone who died with outstanding bills or recurring charges from businesses that don’t see shuffling off this mortal coil as good enough reason to miss payments.

“It’s been a year since my mother died, and the bills just keep coming,” lamented Andrew Pfeffer, 63. “It doesn’t stop.”

The Channel Islands Harbor, Calif., resident was responding to last week’s column about the frequently frustrating challenge of disentangling yourself from business relationships such as gym memberships, insurance plans and cable contracts.

Automatic contract renewals and difficult cancellations are “a predatory practice that many industries are addicted to for an obvious reason — a monthly stream of income,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League.

Preying on the dead and their families takes such hassles to a whole other level.

Pfeffer told me his mom died last November at age 89 after battling cancer. That was a terrible experience for the family.

Then the bills started pouring in — from healthcare providers, an insurer and companies that were unhappy to no longer have a credit card they could hit with monthly fees.

The demands for cash grew so persistent, Pfeffer said, he had to print out a stack of copies of his mother’s death certificate so they’d be readily available to prove she was no longer among the living.

“Some companies then turned around and came after the estate,” he said. “They’d say they were sorry about my mother’s death. And then they’d send another invoice.”

According to the Federal Trade Commission, a dead person’s next of kin aren’t responsible for any remaining debts. However, a creditor is legally permitted to seek payment of outstanding obligations from whatever assets the dead have left behind, which could reduce your inheritance.

“The estate of the deceased person owes the debt,” the FTC says. “If there isn’t enough money in the estate to cover the debt, it typically goes unpaid.”

Keep in mind, though, you could be on the hook if you co-signed for a loan (which is something you want to think long and hard about before doing).

The federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act allows debt collectors to contact a dead person’s family about any money owed, but that’s it. They can’t put the squeeze on you. Also, they typically can’t call more than once.

While unfair business practices are illegal at the federal and state levels, there’s no law on the books that explicitly says it’s illegal for a company to make the cancellation process as hard as possible.

It’s a tough situation. While it might be a drag for families dealing with such things, creditors have a right to request a copy of the death certificate before abandoning a dead person’s debt.

The death of a loved one is hard enough. A little peace from debt collectors isn’t asking for too much.

David Lazarus, a Los Angeles Times columnist, writes on consumer issues. He can be reached at

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