You’re Dead? That Won’t
Stop the Debt Collector
By DAVID STREITFELD
Published: March 3, 2009
MINNEAPOLIS — The banks need another
bailout and countless homeowners cannot
handle their mortgage payments, but one
group is paying its bills: the dead.
Dozens of specially trained agents work
on the third floor of DCM Services here,
calling up the dear departed’s next of
kin and kindly asking if they want to
settle the balance on a credit card or
bank loan, or perhaps make that final
utility bill or cellphone payment.
The people on the other end of the line
often have no legal obligation to assume
the debt of a spouse, sibling or parent.
But they take responsibility for it
“I am out of work now, to be honest with
you, and money is very tight for us,”
one man declared on a recent phone call
after he was apprised of his late
mother-in-law’s $280 credit card bill.
He promised to pay $15 a month.
Dead people are the newest frontier in
debt collecting, and one of the
healthiest parts of the industry. Those
who dun the living say that people are
so scared and so broke it is difficult
to get them to cough up even token
Collecting from the dead, however, is
expanding. Improved database technology
is making it easier to discover when
estates are opened in the country’s
3,000 probate courts, giving collectors
an opportunity to file timely claims.
But if there is no formal estate and
thus nothing to file against, the human
touch comes into play.
New hires at DCM train for three weeks
in what the company calls “empathic
active listening,” which mixes the
comforting air of a funeral director
with the nonjudgmental tones of a
friend. The new employees learn to use
such anger-deflecting phrases as “If I
hear you correctly, you’d like...”
“You get to be the person who cares,”
the training manager, Autumn Boomgaarden,
told a class of four new hires.
For some relatives, paying is pragmatic.
The law varies from state to state, but
generally survivors are not required to
pay a dead relative’s bills from their
own assets. In theory, however,
collection agencies could go after any
property inherited from the deceased.
But sentiment also plays a large role,
the agencies say. Some relatives are
loyal to the credit card or bank in
question. Some feel a strong sense of
morality, that all debts should be paid.
Most of all, people feel they are
honoring the wishes of their loved ones.
“In times of illness and death, the
hierarchy of debts is adjusted,” said
Michael Ginsberg of Kaulkin Ginsberg, a
consulting company to the debt
collection industry. “We do our best to
make sure our doctor is paid, because we
might need him again. And we want the
dead to rest easy, knowing their
obligations are taken care of.”
Finally, of course, some of those who
pay a dead relative’s debts are unaware
they may have no legal obligation.
Scott Weltman of Weltman, Weinberg &
Reis, a Cleveland law firm that performs
deceased collections, says that if
family members ask, “we definitely tell
them” they have no legal obligation to
pay. “But is it disclosed upfront — ‘Mr.
Smith, you definitely don’t owe the
money’? It’s not that blunt.”
DCM Services, which began in 1999 as a
law firm, recently acquired clients in
banking, automobile finance, retailing,
telecommunications and health care; DCM
says its contracts preclude it from
The companies “want to protect their
brand,” said DCM’s chief executive,
Steven Farsht. Despite the delicacy of
such collections, he says his
180-employee firm is providing a service
to the economy. “The financial services
industry is under a tremendous amount of
pressure, and every dollar we collect
their profitability,” he said.
To listen to even a small sample of
DCM’s calls — executives played tapes of
10 of them for a reporter,
electronically edited to remove all
names — is to reveal the wages of
misery, right down to the penny.
A man has left credit card debt of
$26,693.77, the legacy of a battle with
cancer. A widow says her husband “had no
money. He pretty much just had debt.”
Asked about an outstanding account of
$1,084.86, a woman says the deceased had
no property beyond “some tools in the
garage” and an 18-year-old Dodge.
Not everyone has the temperament to make
such calls. About half of DCM’s hires do
not make it past the first 90 days. For
those who survive, many tools help them
deal with stress: yoga classes and
foosball tables, a rotating assortment
of free snacks as well as full-scale
lunches twice a month. A masseuse comes
in regularly to work on their heads and
Brenda Edwards, one of DCM’s top
collectors, spoke with a woman in New
Jersey about her mother’s $544.96 credit
“She had no will, no finances, nothing,”
the daughter said. “Nothing went to
probate.” The $200 in the checking
account was used for funeral expenses.
But the woman also said the family
“filed a form with the county,”
indicating that perhaps there was a
legal estate after all.
“Is anyone in the family in a position
to pay this?” Ms. Edwards asked, adding:
“I’m not telling you it needs to be paid
The woman reached a decision. “I will
talk to my brothers and sisters and we
will pay this,” she said.
Ms. Edwards has a girlish voice that
sounds younger than her 29 years. “If
you plant a seed and leave on a good
note, they’ll call back and pay it,” she
DCM started a Web site called
MyWayForward.com to provide the bereaved
with information, tools and, some day,
products. “We will never sell death. But
it’s O.K. to provide things that could
be helpful to the survivor,” Mr. Farsht
said. Death will be the end of one
customer relationship but the beginning
Some survivors are surprised, and a few
are shocked, that they are hearing from
Eric Frenchman, an online consultant,
said a DCM agent inquired about his late
father’s $50 Discover card balance
before the bill was even due. Since Mr.
Frenchman had been planning to pay it
anyway, he emerged from the experience
vowing never to get a Discover card
The major deceased-debt firms say such
experiences are rare. Adam Cohen, chief
executive of Phillips & Cohen Associates
of Westampton, N.J., said his team of
300 collectors “are all trained in the
five stages of grief.”
If a relative is more focused on denial
or anger instead of, say, bargaining,
the collector offers to transfer him to
the human resources company Ceridian
LifeWorks, where “master’s level grief
counselors” are standing by. After a
week, the relative is contacted again.
DCM executives say some of the survivors
not only gladly pay but write
appreciative notes. They offered up a
stack, with the names deleted, as proof.
One widow wrote that a collector “was so
nice to me, even when I could only pay
$5 a month a few times.” Saying that
money was “so tight” after her husband
died, she added: “It was very hard for
me, and to get a job at my age. Thank