When Dementia Leads to Debt

Take control before an ill family member racks up credit card bills.

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Dear Alpha Consumer,

My husband, who is retired, has dementia. He responds to credit card offers in the mail and charges things to them, even though he shouldn't, because he is on limited Social Security disability income. He knows better, but his mind is weak. He always says he won't use the cards, but he still does. Even if I cut the cards in half, more come in the mail. We are now in $15,000 of debt, and it continues to rise. How can I get him to stop making charges? Will I be responsible for the debt, even if he passes away before I do?

This is a tough situation, and to stop it from getting even worse, you will need to act quickly.

The first step is to stop all of those tempting credit card offers from coming into your home. Steven Katz, spokesman for the credit bureau TransUnion, recommends going to optoutprescreen.com, which allows you to opt out of pre-screened credit offers. (You can also opt out by calling 1-888-5OPT-OUT.) Katz also suggests freezing your husband's credit at all three major credit bureaus—TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax—to stop new accounts from being opened.

I also asked Gail Cunningham, senior director of public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, for advice. In addition to opting out of credit offers, she suggested opening up a post office box and redirecting mail to it, which will stop your husband from seeing the offers.

Cunningham added that you may want to consider paying around $15 a month for a credit-monitoring service, which will alert you every time there is activity on your account. Another option is asking the credit bureaus to flag your account for 90 days at a time for no extra charge. That means you will be alerted if anyone tries to open a new line of credit. But these measures will only let you keep closer track of your husband's activities; they won't stop them.

The next step is more extreme, but, given the situation, may be necessary. Executing durable power of attorney or establishing guardianship will allow you to make financial decisions on behalf of your husband, explains David Goldman, a Florida estate-planning attorney in Jacksonville. Both these options require a lawyer, which can be expensive, but it may enable you to get some of your long-lost money back. (Whether you are able to reclaim any of the spent money will depend on company policies and how much time has lapsed.)

If you do go that route, then let the credit card companies know so that they shut down the existing accounts and don't allow new ones to be opened. If your husband frequently spent money with any particular retailers, you should also alert them to the problem and prevent them from allowing any more purchases. If you do need to dispute any new charges, be sure to do it as soon as possible. Some cards require charges to be disputed within 60 days, or they won't refund the money, Goldman warns.

One of Goldman's colleagues used an emergency guardianship to get back tens of thousands of dollars when his mother bought jewelry after watching television ads. He called the company and said she wasn't competent to enter into those transactions; the company said that if the jewelry was sent back, they would return the money.

As for whether you are responsible for the debt that your husband is incurring, even if he passes away, it depends. If you are a co-signer, then you are as responsible for the debt as he is. If the cards are in his name only, then the law varies by state. (This is also true for divorced couples.) Either way, you will be better off if you can resolve this spiraling debt cycle as quickly as possible.

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