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Does it matter who is the primary account holder?

Times, thankfully, have made this (usually) immaterial

By

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 CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
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Question for the CreditCards.com expert
Dear To Her Credit,
I recently got married, and my husband and I opened a new joint checking account. From a credit score perspective, does it matter who the primary account holder is on bank accounts and credit cards? Does it have to be the husband? What about tax returns and mortgage loans?

Should we always have the same person be the primary account holder, or should we try to each be the primary person on at least one card? -- Casey

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Casey,
From a credit score standpoint, I wouldn't worry about who the primary account holder is. In times past, creditors may have only reported credit history for the primary account holder -- usually the man. If the woman ever found herself single again, she could discover that she had practically no credit history even though she was on joint accounts for years. Fortunately, times and laws have changed.

"It does not matter who the primary account owner is on a bank account. Both account owners are responsible for the account, and therefore both are building (or wrecking) their credit history," says Cathy Pareto, a financial planner and president of Cathy Pareto and Associates. "A creditor or bank who reports the credit history of a joint account to credit bureaus must report it in both names."

With a joint bank or credit account, you both spend or withdraw money and make payments or deposits. Ninety-nine percent of the time you'll never need to even remember who the primary account holder is.

Once in a while, though, it matters.

When you are making changes to the account or speaking to a customer service representative, they may ask to speak to the primary account holder. For example, when I called to ask for a lower interest rate on my credit card  (hardly a questionable or top-secret operation), the customer service representative insisted on speaking to the primary cardholder.

Unless you keep your finances separate, you'll probably want to be joint account holders on all your financial accounts. However, with credit cards you both use, it's easy to let charges slide that should have been looked at more closely. Credit card charges can be a bit cryptic on the bill. If you think your husband must have bought something and he thinks the same about you, you could be missing unnecessary, mistaken or even fraudulent charges on your card. Some couples find it easier to each have their own card that they use most of the time so they can tell if there's something fishy on their statements. It makes sense to be the primary card holder on the card you use the most.

For tax returns, life is simpler if you always have the same person on the top line of the return. I've known people who didn't like the implication of the man always being on the first line of Form 1040, so they took turns. Big mistake. When you talk to the IRS about a joint return, they refer to the return by the first person's Social Security number. If you switch back and forth, especially if you can't remember who was on the top line for the year before last, things could get complicated. If you make estimated tax payments, you may even have trouble getting your payments applied correctly. Why make dealing with the IRS any harder? Find some other way to declare your equality than by taking turns on the top line of your income tax return.

See related: Why women need their own credit, Tips for uncovering, dealing with hidden credit card debt, Credit card authorized users, joint account holders differ, Joint accounts: Till debt do you part, Poll: Snooping and arguments go along with joint credit

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Published: June 19, 2009


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