Editorial Policy

What to do when your spouse hijacks your credit

Erica Sandberg

April 17, 2015

QHi Erica,

Long story short, I married a lady from Thailand; what was paradise became a nightmare. She left in February, and I don't know where she is or who she is with. She ran up my credit big time. You would think good riddance, but I'm left with the ruins of my credit. I'm getting calls day and night because I haven't been able to pay. Can I sue her? If she is in Thailand, how can I get her to pay what she owes me? Tell me soon, please — I'm desperate and heartbroken. –Frank

ADear Frank,

I hate to be the bearer of more bad news, but the odds of you getting this woman to voluntarily pay up seem remote at best. Additionally, it will be hard to sue her for the money owed while she is out of the country. Such lawsuits do not extend past U.S. borders, so you'd probably waste what's left of your cash with the fruitless attempt.

First, you need to face the beast — check your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com to see what accounts she may have opened in your name and whether they have gone into collections. Rather than waiting for the phone to ring, you will know exactly who is owed money.Ask Erica

Although you likely can't successfully sue your wife for what she owes, if she used your personal identification and financial information to open new lines of credit without your knowledge and then charged with them, it's entirely possible that you can escape the debt. Even if she charged without your permission on cards where she wasn't listed as an authorized user, you might have recourse. Contact the credit card companies immediately and tell them what happened. According to the Fair Credit Billing Act, you should not be held responsible for any unlawfully incurred balances.

Ideally, the accounts are still with the original credit card companies, and have not been sold to third-party collection agencies yet (the credit reports you've pulled will help you here). Because card issuers know the law, they'll be able to guide you through the process of removing fraudulent charges. I can tell you now, though, that you'll have to file a police report and alert one of the credit reporting agencies, TransUnion, Equifax or Experian, that a crime has occurred. That credit bureau will let the other two know.

Collection agencies will be trickier and appealing to them with a “but those charges are not mine” plea may fall on deaf ears. In that case, I strongly suggest you contact an attorney for help. The Digital Media Law Project provides a rundown of ways to get free or low-cost legal advice depending on your state and circumstance.

On the other hand, if the credit cards your wife used were in both of your names, or if you added her as an authorized user to your accounts, it will be nearly impossible for the issuer to determine fraud. As far as they're concerned, you granted this woman equal access to the accounts, and possibly even benefited from the purchases she made — such as romantic dinners for two or a big-screen TV that now sits in your living room.

If, in the end, you do wind up responsible for all or some of the balances, I see four options:

1. Satisfy the debts. Maybe you can sell items of worth that you don't need and send the proceeds to the creditors. Or, spend less each month so you have income to go toward the debt. The calls will stop when they have what's owed.

2. Ignore the debts. You could be judgment proof. If you own nothing of value and aren't working now and won't be in the future, there is little the creditors can do but sue you. If they do, they'll win, but if you have nothing for them to take, you won't be affected. You can even send a cease-and-desist letter to stop the calls. Mind that your credit rating will be affected for seven years.

3. Discharge the debts in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. If you qualify for this type of bankruptcy, you can formally escape these debts. You may lose nonexempt property, such as expensive second cars, and your credit report will indicate the bankruptcy for 10 years.

4. Pay some of the debts in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. This kind of bankruptcy is a court-supervised repayment plan. To use it, you'll need an income, and you'll make payments for three to five years.  Any property included in the plan is safe from the creditors, provided you keep up the payments, and your credit report will be affected for seven years.

I'm truly sorry this happened, Frank. The fact is, it's much easier to mend financial problems than rebound from a betrayal. I hope it won't be long before the pain fades.

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