Separate credit cards recommended

Betty Patterson’s letter titled “Coping With the Red Tape of an Overseas Death” (Feb. ’05, pg. 16) was very helpful as well as disturbing. The part about cancellation of the business AmEx card prompted me to call American Express for clarification about what does happen in the case where a couple has personal cards and (as is usually the case) one of them is the prime account holder and the other has his or her own card with an individual number.

I was told by an AmEx representative that when the primary card account holder dies and the company learns of the death, such as through notification on the Travel Medical Insurance assistance line or the general AmEx 24-hour global assistance line, the card belonging to the deceased will be “invalidated” rather than the account’s being canceled. The surviving spouse can then use his or her own card until returning to the place of origin, then the account is canceled and the survivor must open a new account.

Also, cancellation of a card when one dies is handled by a special department within AmEx to be certain it is handled properly. I was assured that under the circumstances I described, AmEx would not cancel the account and leave the survivor without access to the account. It is important, however, that the survivor has a card of his or her own! We have often traveled with only one card.

It was not clear in the letter describing the original events exactly why AmEx canceled the card, but I assume they did so because it was a business card and in the name of the deceased.

I think it is safe to say that we most appreciate Mrs. Patterson’s writing to let us know what happened. I never thought to travel with a copy of our marriage certificate, but I will now, and our bank has a letter authorizing the company to wire funds anywhere to my wife with a phone call.

Wando, SC

Betty Patterson told ITN, “We did have a business AmEx card account with separate cards (the result of my being issued a new one after losing mine).

“When we first signed up for the card’s membership miles program, we thought we had to do it separately, so we each were paying the yearly fee. One nice employee finally told us that the two fees weren’t necessary, so in the last few years we each accumulated miles/points which first were listed separately with our charges but then were combined, as was our bill total, on the invoice. When Jim died, they did give me his accumulated points after I sent them a death certificate, much like the airlines did with their frequent-flyer club points. To use the AmEx miles, though, Jim had been able to access our joint accumulation without any okay from me, which in retrospect is interesting. I never knew Jim was the ‘primary account holder’.”

She added, “I wish to thank those who wrote in response to my letter. Your notes were interesting as well as compassionate. Several gave me more ideas to make future travel less prone to disaster, while others remarked how useful the information will be in their future travels. I hate that it had to evolve that way, but any positive impact a death can have makes the sacrifice less terrible.”

ITN sent a copy of the above letter from Denny Thomas to American Express as well and received the following reply.

I received your letters and here’s what I can tell you about our process in situations involving the death of a basic Cardmember:

• We do have a special unit that assists additional Cardmembers on an account, when the basic Cardmember dies.

• Upon learning of a death, American Express will invalidate the Card of the deceased Cardmember, but we do not cancel the account right away. So, for instance, if a basic Cardmember and an additional Cardmember were traveling together and the basic Cardmember suddenly died, the additional Cardmember would be able to use his/her Card until he/she returned home.

• At that point, our credit department would work with the additional Cardmember to determine if he/she could become a basic Cardmember. So, if all criteria are met, the account stays the same but the liability is switched — and the additional Cardmember becomes the basic Cardmember.

• In terms of the other situation Mr. Thomas cites in his letter, I am unable to comment. For one thing, it is our policy never to discuss a Cardmember’s account with anyone but the Cardmember. Our Cardmember’s privacy is first and foremost. Also, I’m not familiar with all the details involved in (Mrs. Patterson’s) situation.

MONICA BEAUPRE, American Express, Manager, Public Affairs, New York, NY