Death doesn't end car lease obligation

But it said Weltman, Weinberg & Reis is determined — and legally entitled — to collect the cash from her husband's estate.

This was small comfort to Shafton, who had shared all financial accounts and activities with her husband during their 60 years of marriage.

"The estate is me," she said. "Everything in the estate has gone to me."

And that's what makes this whole thing so infuriating.

A multibillion-dollar corporation wants its pound of flesh from the elderly widow of a former customer, and it appears determined to get its $2,352.72 at all costs, including the hiring of a law firm described by Collections & Credit Risk magazine as "the largest creditors' rights firm in the country."

The firm says on its website that it approaches its work "with enthusiasm and intensity."

Enthusiasm? Seriously?

"This is something that, unfortunately, comes up with leases," said Justin Leach, a spokesman for Toyota Financial Services. "It's a tough one, and it's sad."

But it's not something that Toyota is willing to walk away from.

"With each early termination of the contract, certain fees apply," Leach said. "It's a legitimate claim based on the contract."

True. And I get it.

Creditors need to protect themselves from people who don't pay their bills. They're also entitled to restitution in the event of a borrower's death.

But let's think about this a moment. Could Toyota have handled the situation in a more humane fashion?

For instance, why did the company have to put the Prius up for auction, which meant that Toyota Financial Services received only a wholesale price from a dealer?

Perhaps in situations involving a death, the lender could skip the auction and let the Toyota dealer that leased the car offer the vehicle directly to the public from its own lot.

This might be a bit more time-consuming, but it would almost certainly bring in a higher price, which could be used to offset the hit on the deceased customer's estate.

And did the company really need to pound Shafton with all those ridiculous fees? If Toyota had to dispatch repo men in the dead of night to snatch a vehicle from a deadbeat borrower, that's one thing.

I mean, $225 just to send over someone in response to Shafton's own call to pick up the car? Really?

It reminds me of how airlines pile on the fees when people need to travel for family emergencies.

There are times when it wouldn't hurt for companies to behave like the "corporate persons" they profess to be — and have fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to stake such a claim — and not profit-hungry, sociopathic capitalists.

I know, I know: A deal's a deal. Bob Shafton, who was 83 when he died, should have understood the terms of the lease agreement, even though his wife says a Toyota salesman told him not to worry.

But I agree with Shafton that there's a difference between playing fast and loose on lease payments and dying. One situation seems to merit greater flexibility on a creditor's part than the other.

"We certainly feel for her and her family," Leach said. "I wish the system was different. But it is what it is."

It's not. It is what Toyota says it is.

Unlike Shafton, the company is not a victim of circumstance.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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