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Column: Sorry your mom’s dead. Now give us some money

A collection of past-due bills.
Death isn’t so final when it comes to debt collection. It’s important to know your rights when a family member dies with financial obligations.
(Getty Images)

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.”

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The Channel Islands Harbor 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.

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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.

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“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.

I noted in last week’s column that 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.

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Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) is trying to fix that.

His Unsubscribe Act would prohibit so-called negative option agreements online — contracts that automatically renew — “unless the negative option agreement provides the consumer with a mechanism to cancel the agreement in the same manner, and by the same means, into which the agreement was entered.”

In other words, you couldn’t get trapped in an endless cycle of recurring fees without the company providing a clear path for getting free.

“If you signed up for something online, why should you have to call customer service during the middle of the day to cancel your subscription?” Takano told me.

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He said his bill “mandates that you are able to unsubscribe the same way you signed up and requires you to give explicit permission to being billed monthly, even if you unknowingly missed the fine print requiring you to subscribe after the initial free period.”

A simple fix for an annoying problem. I urge all lawmakers to get behind it.

Meanwhile, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the emails I received from Los Angeles Times readers about the paper’s own cancellation policy.

“The most difficult experience I myself ever had in canceling a subscription or service was in trying to cancel my subscription to the Los Angeles Times,” said Santa Monica resident John Ziaukas.

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“Seems you should be able to cancel the same way you joined — online, no?” said Vista resident David Williams. “No. You must call a phone number and talk to a subscription retention specialist, or whatever euphemism they currently use, and then wrestle them into submission.”

I shared these sentiments with Hillary Manning, a spokeswoman for the paper.

“Los Angeles Times subscribers, home delivery or digital-only customers, may call, email or send written notice to us to request a cancellation, and we can process cancellations without the need for a phone call,” she responded.

Manning also said a new online “subscriber center” expected to roll out this month will make it possible “to cancel online, rather than having to send an email.”

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That will be a big improvement, although I’ll shamelessly note that a local paper is a vital resource in these truth-challenged times.

Let me know before you cancel your subscription. Give me a chance to talk you out of it.

Now then, back to Pfeffer and his ongoing efforts to fend off vultures going after his dead mom.

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.

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Maybe after Takano gets his Unsubscribe Act passed, he’ll look into the creation of an online federal database of state-issued death certificates.

As with the federal Do Not Call list, which requires telemarketers to check consumers’ preferences before calling them, a Dead People Directory would serve as a one-stop shop for creditors, collectors and others to see if the person they’re chasing is still breathing.

It would be a convenient resource for businesses and welcome relief for grieving families.

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


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