Divorced woman still cleaning up ex's financial mess

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.

Ask a question.

Dear To Her Credit,
My ex-husband left a Discover card to me when he left in 2009. The card was opened without my consent, and my ex said it's balance was transferred from other credit cards that "we" had from 2006 to 2009.

I tried to do the right thing and make payments on the card for a while until I lost my job and did some research of my own. The cards that were "transferred" onto the account were all credit cards he had before we were married. I went over my own credit report with a fine-tooth comb, and none of the cards listed on the Discover statement belong to me at all.

Over the past five years, I have tried to pay the debts anyway, and it has ended up in wage garnishments, bank account freezing and finally I filed for bankruptcy in March of 2014.

Do I have any legal recourse to go after him to help with any of this? Discover told me through their fraud department that I was married to him and I should have known he opened the account, but he would pay the monthly balance with online transfers or phone calls. I never even got a Discover card. This has wrecked my credit and turned my life upside down. I need to know what I can do to try and get back on track. Thank you so much. -- Caitlin


Dear Caitlin,
In hindsight, it's easy to say what you should have done differently. Don't leave the finances to one party in a relationship. Check your credit report regularly and look for unknown accounts. Never make payments on or assume responsibility for someone else's debt. Above all, try not to marry financial deadbeats.

At this point, you've been financially dragged through the mud. I don't blame you for wanting to want to sling some of that mud back at your ex. Ideally, he should pay for what he has done.

I checked with Pennsylvania attorney Linda Kerns to see if you may have a case. Unfortunately, at this late date you're going to have a hard time suing your ex.

First, according to Kerns, the civil court may not take your case. It may be referred to family court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over matters between husbands and wives. Whereas you could take a friend or business associate to civil court over financial matters, your claim against a former husband may be barred. The family court will then say that the debt should have been dealt with in the divorce.

Another problem is that the statute of limitations in your state may bar you from suing your ex. The statute of limitations varies by state and by the type of case.

If that's not enough, your case gets more complicated and costly if you and your ex don't live in the same state. "The state has to have jurisdiction," says Kern. "She would have to serve him. If he lives in another state, that gets very expensive."

The cost of serving your ex is just the beginning of expenses if you take this to court. There's a filing fee, for starters, which can be hundreds of dollars. You'll have to pay a lawyer by the hour.

"Honestly, unless it was a huge amount of money, it's not worth it to her," says Kerns. "People want satisfaction, but that rarely worth litigating."

Getting your life back on track will have less to do with legal recourse against your spouse, and more with starting over in control of your own life. The good news is that you are now making your own decisions. Nobody can mess up your credit score or your financial life now, unless you let them. Learn all you can about personal finance and pay your bills on time, and your overall financial picture will recover rapidly. You can do it. Best of luck in your new, independent life!

See related: Dividing credit card debt in divorce, 5 ways an ex can ruin your credit during divorce, breakup

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts

Does a personal finance problem have you worried? Monday through Saturday, CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.

Join the discussion
We encourage an active and insightful conversation among our users. Please help us keep our community civil and respectful. For your safety, do not disclose confidential or personal information such as bank account numbers or social security numbers. Anything you post may be disclosed, published, transmitted or reused.

If you are commenting using a Facebook account, your profile information may be displayed with your comment depending on your privacy settings. By leaving the 'Post to Facebook' box selected, your comment will be published to your Facebook profile in addition to the space below.

The editorial content on CreditCards.com is not sponsored by any bank or credit card issuer. The journalists in the editorial department are separate from the company's business operations. The comments posted below are not provided, reviewed or approved by any company mentioned in our editorial content. Additionally, any companies mentioned in the content do not assume responsibility to ensure that all posts and/or questions are answered.

Weekly newsletter
Get the latest news, advice, articles and tips delivered to your inbox. It's FREE.

Updated: 12-15-2018