Can my mother add me to a credit card and leave me with the debt?

Whyme? asked...

Is this true?

My co-worker told me she incurred bankruptcy due to a $12,000 debt incurred by her mother (just after her mother died), run up by her mother on the mother's credit cards. The reason? My friend said her mother somehow named her as an "AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVE" of the credit card -- unbeknownst to her daughter/my friend!! YIKES!!!

My concern: my DH and I recently "accidentally" learned my 80-year-old mother with dementia ADDED my name to her AmEx account and asked AmEx to send ME a credit card, under MY name, but with the AmEx account "under my mother's name." (Note this was done without telling me OR my 3 siblings who are overseeing her finances!!) I called AmEx 2 weeks ago, to CLOSE/END the account! Now, I am worried if I will get any "flak" for this and/or from any of the other several credit cards she is "living off of" due to insufficient income to live in her condo!!

There is no POA and/or guardianship of credit cards, checkbook, etc. Mom lives alone and due to this issue I have SEVERED my relationship with my 3 siblings and SIL!!! HOW can I contact her credit cards AND ensure (bottom line) that DH and I will NOT be held liable for any charges rung up at the time of her death??

HELP!!!

Expert Answer

Barbara Repa, a Caring.com senior editor, is an attorney, a journalist specializing in aging issues, and the author of Your Rights in the Workplace (Nolo), now in its 10th edition.

The situations you and your co-worker describe should not be happening. Credit card companies are obligated to get the consent and signature of anyone who might be added to an account if he or she might become financially liable for any charges on it.

But since you've both described some apparent slippage in the system, you would be best served by being a bit proactive.

First of all, you did the right thing by acting quickly and alerting American Express about improperly adding you to your mother's account. But follow up with the additional step of asking representatives there to send you a letter verifying that the account has been closed and that you have no relation to the account. This might be an important documentation on the offchance that you would later need to prove that you did not authorize any transactions. A piece of paper works well as evidence; a phone call does not.

Then contact one of the three consumer reporting companies listed below and ask that a fraud alert be placed on your credit report. Such alerts are intended to prevent an identity thief"”which is what your mother became when she falsified the records"”from opening additional accounts in your name. You need only contact one company, which should then contact the other two on your behalf. These consumer credit companies, which may also have tips specifically tailored to protect your account, include:

--TransUnion: 800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834

--Equifax: 800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374, and

--Experian: 888-397-3742; www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013.

As an additional step to protect the credit records of both you and your DH, contact the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, at www.ftc.gov. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers stop and avoid them.

And finally, some advice that has nothing to do with finances or the law: You might reconsider severing your relationships with your siblings and SIL if that severing was based only on this issue. You say your siblings are "overseeing" your mother's finances, but the truth is that some people can be awful crafty when it comes to being deceptive about money matters"”and your mother may be one of them. It is entirely possible that your siblings were blameless and uninformed here.

Another reason to mend the fence: There is often strength in numbers. If the four of you can work together civilly, you are more likely to be able to convince your mother to set up a safe and sane system to avoid this harm in the future"”perhaps by establishing a power of attorney for finances or a guardianship or conservatorship to control and monitor your mother's finances.