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How to stop ex from ringing up debt on shared card

Erica Sandberg

February 2, 2016

Q Hi Erica,

I've got to take my ex-girlfriend off the credit card we shared together. She has the card now, but I don't know where she is. Do I have to tell her? None of the debt is mine, and I've got to stop her. — Neil

A Dear Neil,

Old relationships can create such a mess when they're combined with credit cards and other personal finance business.

To clean up this card mess, you'll have to take swift action. I can't tell if the credit card in question is a joint account in both your and her names or if you added this woman as an authorized user to your own account. Here's what to do in the two different circumstances:

You opened the card jointly: If you have this kind of credit card, the issuer granted the account to both you and the other person, so you own it as equals. Either of you may close the account, but most issuers require that the balance be at zero first. I understand that you didn't make the charges, but the issuer bears the right to collect from both parties.

Call the issuer now and ask if you can put a hold on the account. Your ex-girlfriend needn't be present or even give consent and most issuers will oblige. Afterward, neither of you will be able to use the card, so no more debt will be added to the balance.

Hopefully your ex won't want to damage her credit rating, so she will pay what she owes without you having to do anything. If she doesn't, though, you should, otherwise it will seriously hurt your credit rating. It will hurt her credit too, of course, but maybe she doesn't care. Non-paid accounts will result in late payments and potentially high debt on your credit reports, which will lower your credit scores. Also, the issuer can sell delinquent accounts to a collection agency or even sue you for the amount owed. Don't let this happen.

When the balance is paid off, you can formally close the account. Be aware that the history for it will continue to show up on your credit reports. Negative information, such as late payments, will remain listed for seven years. However, if the card was kept in good standing, you'll see it on your credit reports for 10 years from the date it was closed.

She is an authorized user on your card: You may have added your girlfriend to your credit card as an authorized user. If so, she has no legal ties to the credit issuer, so the issuer can't turn to her for payment.

You own the account, so the card debt is yours to pay. While you can try to get her to pay you so you can send the money to the card issuer, in my experience that can be tough. Debtors can make themselves pretty scarce, and your only recourse may be to take her to court and win a judgment that you might be able to enforce. Lawsuits are a long and drawn-out process, however, and not always fruitful.

The good news is that it's little trouble to remove an authorized user from your card. A phone call to the issuer usually accomplishes this, though some issuers also require a letter from you. You won't need to inform your ex that you're doing this, and you may take some pleasure in the thought of her trying to charge an armload of clothes, only to be rejected at the register. Also, her credit report can be negatively affected by removing her as an authorized user on the card. If the account was always paid on time and the debt is low compared to the credit limit, her credit scores may drop with the loss of the available credit line.

In the future, keep your credit separate from your girlfriends.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.

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