Editorial Policy

In divorce, joint cardholders often on hook for full bill

Erica Sandberg

October 20, 2015

QHi Erica,

I am beginning my divorce nightmare. We have one shared Chase credit card that we have had since 1996. The balance is very high (just over $8,000) and not a single red penny of it is because of me. We have other financial problems, too, and without going into details, I can tell you that this is one of the main reasons we are divorcing. Is it correct that I am responsible for 50 percent of this bill? It is the only thing on my credit report that isn’t mine, and I need my report to be good for a new place to live. Can I have my name taken off? Please advise.
— Miriam

ADear Miriam,

Hold on to something stable — you’re probably not responsible for half of the balance on that card, but the entire thing. Then again, so is your husband.

When people marry, they bring together different credit account types. When two people sign for a single account, they become equal partners in the business arrangement. That means the card issuer has the right to demand payment from either or both parties, and if that money doesn’t come in as expected, collection action or a lawsuit can follow.

As unfair as that may sound, remember that the company granted the credit line to the two of you. After you added your signature to the application, the issuer checked your credit rating as well as your spouse’s and assessed your household income as well as other financial information. Based on all the provided data, the company granted the credit line to the two of you.Ask Erica

So the hard truth is, the issuer doesn’t care which of you charged on the account or who is supposed to send the payments. To the company, you’re a single entity. For this reason, the account is appearing on your credit report and your husband’s. Divorce affects credit for years after the papers are signed. An open but well-managed account will be listed as long as it’s active, and if it’s closed, for 10 years from cancellation or closing. In the event the account goes bad — say, with late payments or if it is charged off and the debt sent to collections — the negative marks will remain for seven years from when they occurred.

When you go to court to duke out the details of the divorce, your assets and liabilities will be split. The judge may instruct you to cover some bills and your husband to pay others in your divorce decree. Hopefully, you can prove that you did not rack up any of the charges and that the debt was not for expenses that you and any children might have benefited from (such as groceries and school items). If so, your ex may be instructed to deal with the credit card bill on his own.

Here’s what you need to know about debt and divorce: Divorce decrees don’t carry much weight with creditors. If your husband fails to pay the debt in a timely manner, the credit card company has the right to turn to you for payment. In that event you can press the matter by filing a lawsuit against your ex for not complying with court orders. Then the court may find him in contempt, and hit him with penalties and possibly even time behind bars. No matter what happens, it is imperative that the card company keeps getting paid on time every month or else both you and your ex risk credit report dings.

Regarding having your name removed from the Chase account, you can’t do that until the balance is paid off and then the entire account will have to be closed. To stop problems from occurring now, it is best to pay off and close the account before the divorce is finalized to avoid post-divorce debt issues. You and your ex should consider using any assets, from cash in the bank to selling off property, to delete the debt now and put it behind you.

You can call Chase, explain what’s going on and request that the card be suspended so that no more charges can be added to the balance. This way you and your husband can concentrate on deleting the debt that’s already there.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.

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