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Columns: The Debt Adviser
Steve Bucci   Expert: Steve Bucci
The Debt Adviser
Only joint account holders are obligated for credit card debt
The Debt Adviser

She racks up $30,000 debt in a coma

Dear Debt Adviser,
My mother got severely sick and went into a coma on a cruise and then subsequently died. The cruise ship charged her $30,000 in medical fees and put it on her credit card account. However, her insurance DID pay the $30,000 and the credit card bill for the medical expense only, but it took a few months and the credit card company hit her account, even though they knew she was in a coma and subsequently died, with over-limit fees, finance charges, etc.

She has no estate that needed to go through probate. Am I, as her daughter, liable or not?
-- Nina

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Dear Nina,
What a horrible story! I'm an avid cruiser myself. Although nothing can lessen your pain, I hope your e-mail to me may at least help others avoid adding financial concerns to health worries. Losing a loved one is never easy, especially when it is under circumstances such as you describe. The answer to your question regarding liability is fairly straightforward. If you were not a joint cardholder on the account and your mother left no estate, you are not liable for the unpaid balance on the credit card.

To bring something positive to the table regarding your experience, I'd like to use the circumstances of your letter to inform readers about a couple of points concerning cruises and credit cards.

Much like providing a credit card for a stay in a hotel to cover incidentals such as phone calls, room service, etc., cruise lines generally require a credit card to be on file for any purchases made on the ship. As was the case with Nina's mom, that includes any medical care that you may require while aboard. Like most people, I have always thought that the decision to use a ship's medical facilities or not would be my own.

Expenses can add up in a hurry when you are talking about medical care. My recommendation is to use a credit card that supplies travel medical insurance and to secure additional travel insurance before taking the trip. The insurance would cover things such as trip interruption, emergency travel and health services, medical coverage, etc. Specific coverage would depend on the type of policy purchased. Do some research and find the right product for your specific needs and be careful of exclusions such as for pre-existing illnesses that may surface during a trip.

Before I received your e-mail and did some research on this topic, I almost never purchased travel insurance, believing that if my plans changed, I could save money by self-insuring the cost of a change or unlikely cancellation. I never fully considered involuntary medical treatment, which I know is very, very expensive anywhere, including on a ship. The cruise line medical facility and staff has a "duty to care," like any land-based hospital, to provide care in an emergency. Like a hospital, they will want to get paid before you leave. In effect, the credit card on file with the ship represents a carte blanche up to your limit and perhaps beyond, depending on how aggressive the bank that issued your card is for charges and fees, even if you are incapacitated and can't sign on the bottom line.

Also, travelers should be aware that many hotels, car rental agencies and cruise lines use a practice known as "credit card blocking." The cruise line will estimate the total amount of your bill and contact your card issuer to "block" that amount of credit on your card. Depending on the credit limit on your card, you may not have much left for purchases after the block. To avoid an embarrassing situation when using credit in a port of call, you may want to consider choosing a different credit card for use ashore than the one you have on file with the cruise line.

Nina, my condolences on your loss and I hope you are able to move on from this tragic experience and enjoy traveling once again.

Good luck!

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: June 8, 2007
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