Why a spouse may be turned down for joint credit 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 CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear To Her Credit,
I tried to add my spouse as a joint account holder to my credit card, and Capital One refused without any explanation (and without looking into any details, just after I asked about it). However, they offered to add him as an authorized user.

Why did they refuse? I understand that there may be any different reasons, but at least any ideas? Thank you!  -- Jana

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Jana,
You would think credit card companies would love to add another joint account holder -- or two or three -- to a credit card account. The more people on a credit card account, the more people are liable for the entire balance if the other people on the account stop paying.

With an authorized user, on the other hand, two people are ringing up charges on the card, but only one of them is responsible for the balance. All else being equal, you would think that would be a higher risk for the credit card company.

As a matter of practice, however, I'm not aware of a credit card company allowing someone to add a joint user to an existing account. That would be like adding someone to your mortgage loan after the fact. The bank makes the initial decision to open the card based on the credit and other factors of the applicant or applicants and generally does not add joint borrowers later.

Sometimes bank representatives are not very clear about whether they are adding a joint cardholder or an authorized user.

Just to see what my bank would say, I called the number on my statement. The representative told me that she could certainly add a joint cardholder. She said the cardholder would be able to make purchases and talk to the bank. I said, "So he will be jointly liable on the card?" She said, "Oh, no." A card that has two people using it, but only one is liable for the account, is not a joint account.

In most cases it won't make a whit of difference whether you and your husband have a joint credit card account or not. In fact, you could use a card for years and never know how it's set up. However, I still favor a joint account for most married couples if they're going to both use the account for these reasons:

  • You're both liable. If anything ever happens to your relationship -- even if you separate your finances short of a divorce -- you're not stuck with the bill while the authorized user skips away free.
  • If one of you should die, the other person can still use the account.
  • Either one of you can discuss the account with representatives of the bank. Some people only discover they are not joint account holders when they call the bank to discuss a late payment or a questionable charge.
  • Most married couples have a "we're in this together" attitude toward finances. If that's your reality, why not have your accounts set up to reflect it?

Assuming you really wanted a joint account, I'd encourage you to get one. You and your husband will have to apply for a new card together, perhaps even at the same bank you're using now. If you want to shop around, now's a great time to start. You might even get a better deal or a bonus incentive for signing up.

Hold off on applying for a new card right now if you're about to apply for a mortgage. A new application will cause a small downward blip in your credit score -- maybe seven points or so. It doesn't last long, and your score should go up in the long run because you will have more available credit. If you're not applying for a mortgage or other credit soon, however, that temporary blip shouldn't make any difference.

Happy card shopping, and take care of your credit!

See related: 6 secrets about joint credit6 questions to pop before you open joint credit with your sweetie

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Updated: 04-20-2019