Can Soon-to-be-Ex Ruin Soldier's Credit?
By Erica Sandberg
December 28, 2012
My son is in the military, and he is in the process of getting a divorce. His problem is that he has no credit, and his ex-to-be has gone out and gotten cards with very high limits. He needs to find a credit card company that will take him. Please help. — Mary
Marriage does not mean that two people are legally fused at the financial hip. Sure, what one does financially often has an impact on the other — but, thankfully, your son and his wife are still individuals as well. There are some problems I see with his situation, though, so I’ll cover those and then get to the solutions. Here’s a preview: Yes, he can get his own personal credit card.
- Possible fraud: Based on how you worded your question, it seems like your son’s wife is opening these credit cards on her own. It doesn’t sound like these cards are joint accounts — which would have required your son to submit to a credit check and sign the paperwork as well. Assuming he didn’t do those things, he’s not responsible for the balances, unless the couple lives in a community property state (see the point below).There is, however, the possibility that the soon-to-be ex is skirting the law. Many spouses have access to their partners’ personal and financial information and can therefore open credit accounts in their former spouses’ names fairly easily — though illegally. If that’s the case, we’ll deal with what your son should do next under “Solutions” below.
- Community property: Nine states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) have community property laws, which means that, in the event of divorce, all marital property and debts are split evenly. The key phrase, though, is “marital property.” States vary on what is considered marital (joint) debt, but in general, if purchases leading to the credit card debt were made for the benefit of the couple, it’s joint debt. So if she’s been styling the house where they both live, the debt is most likely shared by your son. But if she bought herself a Mercedes SL that she alone drives, she may have to carry the debt by herself in her own climate-controlled glove box. You’ll need a lawyer, pronto, to sort it out.
- Merged expenses: Do they have children? If so, and your son’s wife uses the cards to pay for such essentials as their clothing, groceries and school tuition, those charges also may be split evenly, even if the accounts are just in her name and there are no community property laws in your state.
- Legally separate: Your son does not have to wait until the signature on the divorce papers is dry before being considered a single man. He can go to the court and file for legal separation, if that is an option in your state. When he does, his wife can no longer apply for combined credit, nor will he be responsible for the charges she makes with the cards she does have. Have him alert the credit card companies to let them know what’s going on. Remember, though, if they do have kids and she charges their expenses, your son may still be on the hook even after that paperwork is rubber-stamped. Regardless of the state and its laws, it’s a good idea to immediately separate your finances, so there can’t be any doubt about who’s spending what.
- Flag credit reports: If your son thinks is soon-to-be ex might commit fraud and use his personal information to open cards, have him visit one of the credit bureaus’ website and add a fraud alert to his reports. Whichever credit bureau he chooses (TransUnion, Experian or Equifax), it will alert the other two. A fraud alert is simply a notation added to your credit reports that tells creditors to notify you before opening any credit in your name.
- Get credit in own name: Unless your son’s credit is extremely damaged, he can get his own accounts. There are even credit cards for members of the military, such as the cards from financial institutions with a military tie, including USAA, the Navy Federal Credit Union and Pentagon Federal Credit Union and those issued by major banks such as Chase and Citibank. If he doesn’t qualify for an unsecured card, he should consider a secured product, as they are much easier to obtain. All he would need is a few hundred dollars to put down as collateral.
Once he has the plastic, I encourage your son to keep his credit clean and bright. As a member of the military, he can take advantage of specialized help, too. Every American military base has a Family Readiness Center that has counseling services to help service members through financial confusion.
In addition, the Better Business Bureau has established the BBB Military Line to provide free financial literacy resources. Finally, banks and credit counselors have come together to address their unique money issues of service men and women. They have collaborated with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and the Military Spouse Corporate Career Network to form CredAbility ReConnect. It is a free, online financial education and counseling program specifically designed for people like your son.
Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.