Can an ex make you pay debt on his card?

To Her Credit columnist 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.

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Question Dear To Her Credit,
My question is complicated. I was seeing a guy who opened up a credit card for a car repair shop just so that my car could get fixed. The agreement was that we would pay it back monthly. Well, that failed. The guy broke up with me not even a week later because he was talking to someone else on the side. He said that I didn’t have to pay the $800 balance because he felt bad for dumping me. I asked him three times, are you sure? And he said yes.

Even if I was going to pay it, I have no access to the credit card or any way to pay it or anything related to that. I couldn’t pay it even if I wanted to.

So now a few months go by, and he messages me off a friend’s number and tells me that the credit is overdue and racking up massive interest, and I better start paying. I told him no, I'm not liable to pay and that he also said I didn’t have to pay. And he said he will make sure I pay.

I told him he owed me $200 before even applying for the card, and yet he never paid me back for that. Am I liable to pay the credit card bill? I live in Illinois. – Belinda


Dear Belinda,
It seems you have more than one question here. The first one is whether your ex-boyfriend can make you liable for a credit card balance you promised to pay. The answer is a flat no. You have no contract with the credit card company. You are apparently not even an authorized user.

The fact that your ex used the card to pay for your car repairs is neither here nor there. It’s not your card, and it’s not your debt to the credit card company.

There’s another, bigger question here, however. That is whether your ex could take you to court over the $800 and force you to pay him directly. You admit that you initially promised to pay it. On the other hand, he forgave the debt when he broke up with you. Now you throw in a $200 debt he owed you, and it is indeed complicated.

If your ex-boyfriend wants to take legal action against you, he will find most court proceedings to be far too expensive for collecting this debt, so he would probably go to small claims court. In Illinois, the maximum judgment allowed in small claims court is $10,000, plus costs.

Your ex would be well within the limits to attempt to collect the $800, plus any interest and other fees. Another advantage of small claims court is that plaintiffs and defendants do not always need lawyers, and the rules are simpler than in most court proceedings.

According to the Illinois state website, a person attempting to collect in small claims court would need to prove the defendant owes them money. For example, your ex could write down what he remembers you both saying about the debt, and print out text messages and emails. He could also ask friends to testify about what they remember that may bolster his case.

If your ex does take you to court, be sure to respond. If you do not defend yourself, you generally lose by default. You will want to write down your version of events, and bring text messages and emails that help show the debt was forgiven.

If you win, great! If your ex wins, a judgment will be entered in court stating how much you owe him. He still has to collect from you – the court does not force you to pay. Your ex would probably then use the judgment to garnish your wages or other assets.

What if your ex-boyfriend doesn’t take you to court, but he tries to collect by harassing you or trying to make you feel guilty? Looking at it from his point of view, he felt guilty about breaking up with you, so he thought he’d pay it himself. He got a quick lesson in how hard it can be to pay off $800 when the interest charges keep racking up, and he changed his mind. That doesn’t make his behavior right, but it explains his frustration.

Your best course of action in that case may be to make some kind of deal with him. Depending on what you can afford without jeopardizing your other financial needs, you could still offer to pay part of the debt in a lump sum or in payments.

If you can come to some kind of agreement, be sure to get it on paper or in an email before you give him any money. He did forgive the debt. However, it’s generally better to resolve situations than to let them drag on. That may be the best way to end all contact with him, and to move forward with your own life.

See related: Is sharing your credit card ever OK?, Poll: Sharing credit cards common, but can bring problems

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Updated: 01-21-2018