Debt collection after death gives little time to grieve

    Shortly after the death of Michael and Celia Ingram’s son last Thanksgiving, their phone started ringing, and kept ringing. It wasn’t friends and family; it was bill collectors. The Ingrams say they were relentless, and indifferent to their grief.

    Michael and Celia Ingram of Newark, Del., lost their son last Thanksgiving. His car was hit by a drunken driver, going the wrong way on I-95.

    Shortly after his death, the Ingrams’ phone started ringing, and kept ringing. It wasn’t friends and family; it was bill collectors. The Ingrams say they were relentless, and indifferent to their grief.

    Michael Ingram II had just graduated college, and was living with his parents while looking for a job. His mother recalls that her son used to jokingly call his basement quarters “the man cave.” His father says Michael was a great kid, a stand-out athlete, somebody who was always doing the right thing.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    He had lots of friends. Michael—Mizz to his friends—was 23 when the crash killed him, leaving his parents enveloped in shock and grief.

    The Ingrams stumbled through the next weeks on auto-pilot, got through the funeral, and started sorting out their son’s affairs. They closed his bank account, shut down his cell phone service.

    No time to grieve

    His father called the college loan companies and let them know that his son had passed away. But as soon as the due dates passed, the phone started ringing–bill collection agencies.

    “We were getting calls five six times a day, shortly after those due dates,” recalls Michael Ingram Sr. “I’m asking these people, ‘look I don’t understand what just happened to me, please let me have some time to grieve.’ And, it never stopped. “

    Ingram says that none of the agents ever seemed to know about previous conversations. So, every time the phone rang, he had to explain his situation anew.

    One day, he found himself speaking to a young man who knew his son from college.

    “I’m explaining that my son had passed away, on Thanksgiving Day,” said Ingram. “And he goes, ‘you mean Mizz?’ That was his nickname. The guy on the other end knew my son!”

    Even a representative from the hospital where his son died called, asking for Michael Ingram II. They asked how he was going to pay for his bill.

    “Especially for a hospital, there needs to be flags in the system, there should be flags, that shouldn’t happen. We are grieving parents, and they are calling to speak to our son,” said Ingram.

    On the other end of the line

    New Jersey resident Zachariah Stahre used to make these kinds of calls—he worked as a debt collector for years. To be a bill collector, he says, is to grow cynical about the excuses for not paying debts.

    For every truly grieving relative, there’s somebody faking an alibi. Stahre says he has heard it all, people who claimed they were in the hospital, wounded, or had lost their jobs.

    Ingram says he was never trying to skirt financial responsibilities, but was furious about the relentless and uncaring way in which debt collectors interrupted his grieving process.

    Caring is not part of the job description, Stahre said.

    “You lose your edge, when you get yourself personally involved with the situation. You are done, you are done,” he said.

    But did the Ingrams really owe all the debts they were being dunned for?

    Noah Schwartz is an attorney with Stark and Stark in New Jersey. He says, in most cases, family members are not responsible for debts after the death of a loved one. Certain debts will be settled if there’s an estate, but “unsecured debts” are forgiven after death.

    That doesn’t always stop the collectors.

    “You could get a call at 2 in the morning from somebody, saying you owe me $1,000, $5,000, or $10,000,” said Schwartz. “The individual receiving that call isn’t thinking ‘oh, I didn’t sign that credit card.’ And in a lot of cases, and this is the reason these people make these calls, those people pay up.”

    Stahre said he is familiar with this practice, but didn’t engage in it during his years as a debt collector.

    “I have experienced it, I have never encouraged it on the management side. I have never had a company that has encouraged it … obviously, as a collector you want to give it that one shot,” Stahre said

    Halting the calls

    Michael Ingram wants the calls to stop—for all families who are in the midst of grief. He has reached out to elected officials, and meets with other grieving families in support groups.

    Recently, the Federal Trade Commission issued new guidelines concerning collecting debts after death. They specifically state that credit collectors must not harass families or deceive them into believing they are personally responsible for debts. A representative of the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals said the new guidelines are welcome.

    The Ingrams say calls from collectors have tapered off since they have hired an attorney to settle what’s owed.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal