Divorced woman still cleaning up ex's financial mess


To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive

Dear To Her Credit,
My ex-husband left a Discover card to me when he left in 2009. The card was opened without my consent, and my ex said it's balance was transferred from other credit cards that "we" had from 2006 to 2009.

I tried to do the right thing and make payments on the card for a while until I lost my job and did some research of my own. The cards that were "transferred" onto the account were all credit cards he had before we were married. I went over my own credit report with a fine-tooth comb, and none of the cards listed on the Discover statement belong to me at all.

Over the last five years, I have tried to pay the debts anyway, and it has ended up in wage garnishments, bank account freezing and finally I filed for bankruptcy in March of 2014.

Do I have any legal recourse to go after him to help with any of this? Discover told me through their fraud department that I was married to him and I should have known he opened the account, but he would pay the monthly balance with online transfers or phone calls. I never even got a Discover card. This has wrecked my credit and turned my life upside down. I need to know what I can do to try and get back on track. Thank you so much. -- Caitlin


Dear Caitlin,
In hindsight, it's easy to say what you should have done differently. Don't leave the finances to one party in a relationship. Check your credit report regularly and look for unknown accounts. Never make payments on or assume responsibility for someone else's debt. Above all, try not to marry financial deadbeats.

At this point, you've been financially dragged through the mud. I don't blame you for wanting to want to sling some of that mud back at your ex. Ideally, he should pay for what he has done.

I checked with Pennsylvania attorney Linda Kerns to see if you may have a case. Unfortunately, at this late date you're going to have a hard time suing your ex.

First, according to Kerns, the civil court may not take your case. It may be referred to family court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over matters between husbands and wives. Whereas you could take a friend or business associate to civil court over financial matters, your claim against a former husband may be barred. The family court will then say that the debt should have been dealt with in the divorce.

Another problem is that the statute of limitations in your state may bar you from suing your ex. The statute of limitations varies by state and by the type of case.

If that's not enough, your case gets more complicated and costly if you and your ex don't live in the same state. "The state has to have jurisdiction," says Kern. "She would have to serve him. If he lives in another state, that gets very expensive."

The cost of serving your ex is just the beginning of expenses if you take this to court. There's a filing fee, for starters, which can be hundreds of dollars. You'll have to pay a lawyer by the hour.

"Honestly, unless it was a huge amount of money, it's not worth it to her," says Kerns. "People want satisfaction, but that rarely worth litigating."

Getting your life back on track will have less to do with legal recourse against your spouse, and more with starting over in control of your own life. The good news is that you are now making your own decisions. Nobody can mess up your credit score or your financial life now, unless you let them. Learn all you can about personal finance and pay your bills on time, and your overall financial picture will recover rapidly. You can do it. Best of luck in your new, independent life!

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Published: April 25, 2014

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