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Ex-wife maxes out joint cards: Who pays?

By Todd Ossenfort

The Credit Guy
'The Credit Guy,' columnist Todd Ossenfort
The Credit Guy, Todd Ossenfort, is a credit expert and answers readers' questions about credit, counseling and debt issues.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Credit Guy,
My wife and I were divorced in 2001. The divorce decree stated that the credit card debt be paid, which it was in the settlement. Now I find she has maxed out three cards that are still tied to my name and thus my credit. How do I get my name off these accounts? This is all debt she has incurred since the divorce was final. Do I need to get a lawyer? -- Drew

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Drew,
Divorce is at best unpleasant and at worse very painful. As you have found, the lingering separation of finances can add to the pain for years. Unfortunately, a divorce decree does not supersede a contractual agreement with a creditor. Your agreement with the creditor stays intact even though your marriage did not. I hope you are on polite speaking terms with your ex, and that she will cooperate with you to resolve the credit card situation. Communicate with her in a nonthreatening way to see if it can be resolved. Name-calling and finger-pointing won't help your current situation.

What would be the most helpful to learn is how the accounts are set up. Are they joint accounts where both of you are financially responsible, or is your ex the account holder and you are an authorized user? It makes a huge difference in your ultimate financial responsibility and in how you are able to resolve the issue.

For example, if the accounts are in her name and you are only an authorized user, you are not responsible for payment on the accounts. If she is not willing to remove your name from the accounts, you can dispute the accounts with the credit bureaus as not yours and they should be removed. You could attempt contacting the card issuer to have your name removed, but most issuers won't make changes to the account for anyone other than the account owner.

On the other hand, if you are a joint account holder with her, you are equally responsible for the payments -- even if she made all the charges, and even if your divorce decree states that she should not have been using the cards. Contact the card issuer and have the accounts closed. They will not remove your name from the account as long as it has a balance, but they will close the account so your ex cannot add any purchases to the balance.

For joint accounts that are covered in your divorce decree, you might consider contacting your attorney to determine your rights regarding payment of the accounts. Depending on what is including in your decree, you might be able to take your ex to court and have the court enforce payment of the accounts. Keep in mind, however, that you will incur attorney and possibly court costs to accomplish this.

Finally, if the accounts are yours, and she is an authorized user, simply contact the card issuer and have her removed from the account and her card deactivated. Again, you would be responsible for the charges according to the contract with the card issuer and would need to take court action if she is unwilling to pay the balances.

After you decide how you will move forward, check your credit reports to assure that whatever action you take is reflected on your reports.

Take care of your credit!

See related: Authorized user or joint account holder?, Dividing credit card debt in divorce

Todd Ossenfort is the chief operating officer for Pioneer Credit Counseling in Rapid City, S.D. Pioneer Credit Counseling has been a member of the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies since 1997.

The Credit Guy answers a question about a debt or credit issue from a CreditCards.com reader each week. Send your question to The Credit Guy.

Published: April 13, 2009


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