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Husband's card defaults don't need to weigh on wife's credit

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Credit Score Report
Reporter Jeremy M. Simon
Jeremy M. Simon is a former staff reporter for CreditCards.com who covered credit reporting and scoring issues.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Credit Score Report,
My husband had a credit card and had given me a card from his account. I did not sign anything or provide him with any information, but he got a second card with my name on it for me to use. I have not used the card for some time, and we are no longer together. He has defaulted on his payments. It is showing up on my credit report. Is that legal? Can I get that removed? -- Mindy

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Hey Mindy,
Since you didn't sign anything, you probably won't be held responsible for the debts on your husband's credit card accounts. But that doesn't mean you won't need to do some cleanup work to get those negative items removed from your credit report.

There are two possibilities why your husband's debts are on showing up on your credit report. In the first scenario, your husband may have listed you as an authorized user, thus granting you the freedom to use his credit cards without the responsibility of repaying any debts. Under that circumstance, those defaults may be listed on your report in error. In the second scenario, your husband may have fraudulently used your personal information to make you a joint account holder on his credit cards, leaving you equally responsible for any debts he ran up. Either way, there are steps you can -- and should -- take to clear his unpaid debts from your credit report.

Your credit report should indicate whether you are an authorized user or joint account holder on those credit cards. (You can get free copies of your credit reports from the other credit bureaus to see if they list the same information.) "If she is an authorized user and not a joint account holder, she should be able to have the account removed from her credit history," says Rod Griffin, director of public education for credit bureau Experian. That also goes for credit reports from the other major U.S. credit bureaus, TransUnion and Equifax. The bureaus have said that reporting errors can be addressed by contacting them using the following information:

  • Experian credit reports include dispute instructions. You can call the bureau directly via its toll-free number -- (888) 397-3742.
  • TransUnion disputes can be filed by dialing (800) 916-8800, option 3.
  • Equifax errors can be disputed online or by writing to CSC Credit Services, P.O. Box 619054, Dallas, TX, 75261-9054.

There is no guarantee, unfortunately, that those unpaid debts will come off your credit report. For example, in 10 states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin), community property laws basically treat married couples as joint account holders -- even if the spouse signed on as only an authorized user. That may be the case, depending on where you live. "If at all possible, any joint accounts should be paid and closed before the divorce is finalized," Griffin says. "If that is not possible, contact your lenders and ask them to revise the contract, making only one person responsible for the debt." He adds that a divorce doesn't change a contract with the lender, so joint accounts could still appear on both cardholders' reports.

The other scenario involving the possibility of your husband making you a joint account holder is more troublesome. If your husband used your personal information -- including your Social Security number -- to illegally open the accounts, you may need to speak to the police as well as the credit bureaus. "If the account was opened fraudulently, she would need to contact law enforcement and report the account as fraudulent. That may mean taking legal action against her ex-spouse," Griffin says. These steps can help you get the damaging information removed from your credit history. "With a police report specifying the account is fraudulent, the credit reporting companies can take steps to remove the information from her credit report," says Griffin. In addition to getting the negative items removed, also have the bureaus set up fraud alerts so that your husband can't open any additional accounts in your name. If you place a fraud alert with one bureau, it is required to inform the other two bureaus to do the same. You should also directly contact the card issuers about getting those accounts closed before any more damage is done.  

While you're taking action to clean up the mess your husband made, debt collectors may begin calling. But since you aren't responsible for that debt, don't send them any money. Instead, let them know you are a victim of ID theft and aren't responsible for any payments on your husband's accounts.

You've got some work ahead of you, but by doing what's needed, you can protect yourself from any further damage.

Good luck!

-- Jeremy 

See related: Free credit reports: How to get the actual free one, What to do when your ex steals your identity, When a family member steals your identity, If dear old dad steals your identity, turn him in

Jeremy M. Simon is a former CreditCards.com reporter who wrote about credit scoring, economic data, credit card crime and other issues. He is based in Austin, Texas. He is a graduate of Vassar College and has previously worked for Thomson Financial in New York City, where he wrote about the stock markets, and Texas Monthly, as well as several publications in Austin.

 

Published: July 6, 2010


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