Don't ignore divorce decree debt mandate

You risk a contempt of court charge, even if bank says you're not liable

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,
I am getting divorced. I was an authorized user on my husband's credit card, and I used it for my attorney fees. I recently had my name removed as an authorized user. Am I responsible for paying that card balance if the divorce agreement states I must pay it? The credit card company said I was not responsible for the debt. He should have taken me off the account if he didn't want to pay it. -- Donna


Dear Donna,
In a divorce situation, you can be liable for credit card debt in two ways -- by direct liability to the credit card company or by the divorce agreement.

As an authorized user only, the credit card company generally does not hold you responsible for the balance. The bank extended credit based on your husband's credit history and ability to repay the debt, not yours.

Be careful if you live in a community property state, however. The bank could pursue you for debts you and your husband ran up during your marriage, including this one. They could very well do this if your husband stops paying the bill, even if they are saying you're not responsible for the bill now. According to community property laws, everything you and your husband own and all your debts are considered to belong to both of you unless you show otherwise.

The divorce agreement is a separate issue. This agreement does not change, or have the power to change, your liability to the bank.

That doesn't mean you don't have to pay the card debt, however, if the divorce agreement says you must. Divorce courts mean business. The court takes all the applicable factors in a divorce and divides the assets and liabilities as equitably as it can. If you were assigned certain debts, you probably received assets from the marriage as well.

If you accept your share of the assets from the marriage, but you don't pay the bills, the division of marital property is no longer equitable from the court's standpoint. Your failure to pay -- especially if you can afford to pay but deliberately decide not to -- could put you in contempt of court. Contempt of court can result in you owing the credit card balance, plus your husband's attorney's fees and costs. If he proves that you willfully refuse to pay the debt, you could even serve jail time.

Depending on the status of your divorce, you should make sure you receive a fair settlement before the divorce is final. Don't assume you can just ignore a debt afterward that you don't feel you should have to pay.

Taking your name off the credit card was a good idea. Be sure to check your credit history and make sure you have taken your name off all his cards, and that his name is not on any of yours. Close any joint accounts. Too many people find out later -- sometimes many years later -- that they still have credit card entanglements with a former spouse.

It's never a good idea to ignore any bill, but a court-ordered debt payment is in a class by itself. No matter how unpleasant sorting out finances in a divorce is, be sure to abide by the divorce agreement or seek legal help in your state if you cannot. 

See related: Overcoming financial infidelity, Adding yourself to spouse's card is fraud, Debt and divorce: 5 steps to make a clean credit split 

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Updated: 01-16-2018