Editorial Policy

Spiteful spouse? Convince him his credit is at risk, too

Erica Sandberg

June 5, 2015

QHi Erica,

I am going through a horrible divorce, and my husband is out to get me. We have one joint credit card and he is deliberately not paying it so my credit is ruined. What can I do? The card company will not take me off the account, so I am stuck. Thank you. –April

ADear April,

Before you do anything else, pay the minimum payments each month and on time, even if you didn't run up the debt. Your credit is at stake, and the creditor doesn't care about who is right and who is wrong in this case.

Paid the minimum? Great. Now, focus on your next priority: Get the account closed. That's more complicated, but here are some tips.

While you may be able to suspend charging access (call the issuer and ask), most creditors will not completely close an account that has an outstanding balance.Ask Erica

You also can't be removed as an owner from the account while there is a balance, as you and your husband applied for the credit card together. When you did, the issuer checked each of your credit reports as well as the household income, then approved it based on that combined information. A contract was formed. To break the bonds, you've got to first zero out the debt.

Additionally, this card will continue to be listed on your consumer credit reports for quite some time. Accounts held in positive standing usually appear for 10 years; negative marks (such as late payments and chargeoffs) remain for seven years.

Sadly, I've seen spiteful partners intentionally tank credit ratings, even when it hurts their own credit. If you haven't already, check your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com to make sure he (or anyone else) hasn't opened accounts in your name without your knowledge. While you're at it, check for and dispute any other incorrect information.

As I mentioned, your choices are limited with a joint account while there is a balance. Your best option is also the most difficult: Talk to your husband calmly and convincingly. He is also damaging his credit, and that is his most powerful reason for stopping what he's doing.

Here's what Carrie Cole says, president of Michigan-based SmartDivorce.com, which helps couples work out their financial differences as they're separating: “His credit will be messed up too — someday he may want to buy a home or a car and he won't be able to.” Reiterate that message, anger free, and try to work together.

Hopefully, your spouse will calm down and do what he's supposed to. Many people make idle threats that they don't fulfill. However, even if you are able to convince him to behave responsibly, continue to check your credit reports and the account until it's closed.

If rational conversation doesn't work, you may have to seize control and transfer the balance to an account only you are on, then close the joint account. I understand that this solution may be unfair, especially if he's the person who ran the debt up, but it will be a tough — if not impossible — fight to get out of the debt. Appealing to the creditor probably won't do any good, since each owner is 100 percent liable. Worse, if neither of you send the payments, it will become seriously delinquent. At that stage, either or both of you can be sued for damages.

If you can't afford to pay, appeal to the creditor and ask if it is willing to reduce the amount owed. If the answer is no, add a 100-word statement to your credit file that summarizes the situation. It won't help your credit score, but anyone who pulls your report will see it, and your explanation can make a difference.

As you continue through the divorce proceedings, assets and liability division will be worked out by your attorneys and the judge. The grand finale should be a decree that assigns responsibility for all debts.

Just be aware that the decree doesn't change account ownership. Cole warns that if your ex violates the decree, you'll have to take him back to court — which can cost more money.

In a desperate situation, you may need to consider bankruptcy so that the creditor turns to your husband for the balance. Not everyone qualifies, though, and your credit will almost certainly take more of a hit. Talk to an attorney about your options.

Lastly, keep perspective. You may not have the means to deal with this debt, and if your ex is committed to being vindictive, know the worst case scenario. Yes, the creditor can sue, but it will focus on the person in the best financial position. If that's not you, it will turn its attention to him.

While your credit rating will be hurt, the scar won't be permanent. Eventually the dings will fade into the background and you can rebuild. Get a credit card in your own name. Start small, with a secured or low limit account, and then pay on time, in full. As the months pass, the great data you'll be adding to your reports will overshadow the problems — and you can move on.

Got a question for Erica? Send her an email.