Editorial Policy

Divorce leaves wife holding the debts

Erica Sandberg

January 7, 2014

QDear Erica,

Well, I am alone after 34 years of being with the same man I was so gullibly in love with. I am ashamed that I allowed him to take advantage of me. I was trying to make my husband's credit perfect because I thought we were going to be together forever, but after 34 years he traded me in for a newer model. And now my credit is in the toilet. I live only on disability income. Please if you can help, do tell me where I can start. — Ruth

AHi Ruth,

Your situation is a cautionary tale, and I'd like to take a moment to ask all readers to heed this advice: Take care of your own financial business. No matter how long you've been with someone, never assume that the person is going to do the right thing by you at all times. I'm not implying that you shouldn't trust and love, but it's best to maintain control over your money.Ask Erica

As for your situation, I'll have to do a little guesswork when giving you advice. You mentioned that you tried to help your husband build his credit and, in the process, he ruined yours. So, my guess is that you had joint accounts that your ex-husband ran up and didn't pay. Late payments and charge-offs hurt credit scores quite badly. All parties in a joint ownership arrangement would be responsible for a delinquent debt, and the activity for that account would show up on everyone's credit reports. Or perhaps you added him as an authorized user on your card, and he ran up some high balances you couldn't pay. In that case, you're left shouldering all the debt. Authorized users have no responsibility for balances on a credit card — the main cardholder, meanwhile, holds full responsibility.

Regardless of whose name was on the accounts, your ex-husband might still be on the hook to pay. If you are already divorced, the court may have assigned some debts to you and others to your ex. In other words, “You pay this, the other one pays that, now play nice.” However, even if your spouse was ordered to take care of a particular credit card balance, if your name is on the card, the credit card issuer can still come after you if he fails to pay.

You can sue your deadbeat ex for violating the divorce decree if this happens. But to sort it all out, you'll need legal advice from a professional. Because you mention your funds are limited, a good place to start is LawHelp.org, a site that helps low-income people find free legal aid. They may be able to connect you with an attorney who can help you pro bono. Search for other resources, too. Free legal clinics exist and are often staffed by law students and paralegals.

Now back to your credit rating and what you can do about it. Credit scores and reports need to be wonderful only if you're going to do something with them, such as apply for a loan or credit card. Some employers do check applicants' credit, but because you're receiving disability income, I don't think this is a factor for you. Even if it were, an employer may be sympathetic to debts incurred by divorce rather than irresponsible overspending.

Your options to deal with the debt include paying it and, well, not paying it. If you have the funds and are lawfully responsible, go ahead and take care of it once and for all. Your credit rating will improve dramatically when the debt is gone.

Don't want to pay? You may not have to. Disability benefits are protected from wage garnishment, and if you don't have much in the way of assets, you may be what's called “judgment proof.” That means that even if your creditors took you to court for the debt, there is nothing they can do to force you to pay. If you qualify, Chapter 7 bankruptcy will let you rid yourself of those debts immediately and forever. Still, whether you file for bankruptcy or let your creditors sue you, you're looking at serious credit damage.

In the future — and there will be one for you — keep close watch on your finances and refuse to hand even a close loved one the reins.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.