Death doesn't end car lease obligation

The carmaker sics its lawyers on a widow to collect more than $2,300 owed on a lease that ended when her husband died.

If you lease a car, don't think you can get out of payments just because you're dead.

Death, it turns out, is considered "early termination" of your contract, and that can mean thousands of dollars in penalty fees.

Sally Shafton, 81, learned this recently after her husband, Bob, died of prostate cancer. She now faces charges totaling $2,352.72 from Toyota Financial Services.

Her husband had leased a brand-new Prius from Manhattan Beach Toyota a year ago. He knew at the time that he was ill but, according to his wife, "the salesman assured him that death would qualify for interruption of the lease."

It didn't.

After her husband passed away in December, Shafton contacted Toyota Financial Services, explained the situation and said they could come and collect their Prius any time they wanted.

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It took a few weeks, but a Toyota worker eventually arrived at Shafton's home and drove off in the car.

"I breathed a sigh of relief and forgot about the whole thing," she recalled.

Last month, however, Shafton received a letter from Toyota Financial Services informing her that she owed the company all sorts of money, including $225 for the cost of "repossessing and transporting" the Prius and $83 to recondition the vehicle.

"Recondition?" Shafton said. "It was a new car that we'd had for only nine months. And Bob was so ill he rarely drove it."

Toyota said the late Mr. Shafton still owed $27,470.68 on his three-year contract, but the company had earned $23,800 selling it at auction. So once all applicable refunds and fees were factored in, it said, Toyota was due $2,352.72.

Shafton told me she called the company and explained, again, that her husband had died.

A service rep pointed her toward the part of her deceased husband's lease agreement involving "early termination." It specified that "you may have to pay a substantial charge if you end this lease early."

Shafton replied that she understood the provision.

"It's there for people who are irresponsible with their leases," she said. "But death is something different."

Be that as it may, the rep answered, someone has to pay. And in this case, that someone was Bob Shafton's estate.

This position was reiterated the other day when Shafton received a letter from the law firm of Weltman, Weinberg & Reis, which had been retained by Toyota to get its dead customer's money.

The letter made clear that Shafton herself wasn't liable for the debt. After all, she hadn't co-signed the lease.

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