Help! Ex left me with $45,000 in card debt

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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Dear To Her Credit,
A year or so ago, I went through a horrible divorce caused by a malicious stepson. Because of a prenup agreement, I was sadly responsible for all the marital debts. I had let my husband use three of my credit cards.

The total debt on these cards is about $45,000, on which I pay approximately $1,200 a month. This is more than twice what the credit card companies request.

I am 75 and it is difficult for me to make ends meet. I cannot file for bankruptcy because of my income. Should I just pay the minimum or so requested on the cards, never use them, and keep more of my cash? At this rate, I am too old to ever pay them off completely.   -- Shirley


Dear Shirley,
I'm not a divorce lawyer, but I'm baffled by a prenup that has left you with all the debts. That's in the past, however. Let's look at your options moving forward.

One option for increasing your monthly cash after debt payments by about $600 per month, as you suggest, would be to pay only the minimum on the cards. That would certainly help your cash flow, while still keeping your creditors happy. However, it won't do much for your long-term financial outlook. You'll continue to accrue interest expenses every month, and you'll make almost imperceptible progress on paying the debt off.

That may not seem so important now, but it may someday. Say 10 or so years from now, you want to live someplace else or have everyday help. It's hard to say what your health and needs may be. The money you are sending every month now and the debt you will still owe 10 years from now could seriously limit your choices. That's why it's important you find a way to resolve these debts within a reasonable period of time.

I recommend finding a nonprofit agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. Have a counselor look at your entire financial picture and the options available to you.

For example, you may need to consider bankruptcy. Having a good income does not necessarily mean you cannot file for bankruptcy. You may not qualify for Chapter 7, the kind of bankruptcy that wipes out most consumer debts. However, under Chapter 13, you would pay part or all of your debts under an approved budget plan for a defined length of time. Within three to five years, you could be out of debt. That's certainly better than dragging the ball and chain of debt along for the rest of your life.

On the other hand, with the help of a credit counselor, you may decide to negotiate the debt balances. You can do this without signing up with a debt negotiation company. Your counselor can tell you how to proceed.

For most people, especially if they are still in their prime earning years, it's better to pay off debt in full whenever possible. Your situation is different. You've tried to do the right thing, even with debt that you didn't run up yourself. It's just too big for you to pay, however, and it may hinder your ability to take care of yourself in the future. You shouldn't hesitate to try to resolve these debts as soon as you possibly can.

See related: Debt settlement vs. credit counseling: similiar aims, different means

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Updated: 01-20-2018