Can an ex sue you for signing, using his card?

You're divorced now, but he says he's going to file charges

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 for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I live in California. My ex and I were divorced because of my credit card abuse. I used his credit cards without him knowing. I didn't use them for just my own benefit, but for the family needs.

Now he has reported the credit card use as fraud, and he is telling me that he will be sending me to jail for forging his signature. Can he actually do that? We are divorced now and the credit card balances are under my name, but he is still very mad at this situation. Any advice will be greatly appreciated.  -- Valerie

Answer for the expert

Dear Valerie,
You should be worried, according to Boston bankruptcy attorney Theodore Connolly.

Nobody can throw you in jail, or threaten to do so, because of unpaid bills. Any collector who makes such threats can be reported to the attorney general. However, when fraud is involved, the rules change.

"If a debtor commits an act such as failing to pay child support or committing fraud, then jail is a real possibility," says Connolly. "In this woman's case, she has likely committed a crime, possibly a felony, by forging her husband's signature."

Forging signatures and other forms of identity theft among family members is very common. Family members have easy access to records and identifying information, and they know what the signature should look like. Often, as in your case, family members share the same mailing address.

Regardless of whether it's committed by a family member or someone on the other side of the world, however, the law takes identity theft seriously. The consequences can include liability for the debt, fines, relinquishment of purchases and jail time.

Your story is a cautionary tale for anyone who is tempted to take shortcuts in financial matters. It's so easy to sign a spouse's name when you're in a hurry or if you figure it's all coming out of the same pot anyway. If you're buying things for the whole family, it doesn't feel like you're doing anything wrong. As times goes by, however, it may become harder to tell the other person about the bills -- especially if they are adding up fast. If you try to hide the bills, know that someday, the truth will come out.

If you've already settled a divorce over this issue, some time must have passed since he discovered and reported it. He's already notified the credit card companies and filed reports. He may be mad, but now that the debts are in your name, we can hope he loses interest in seeing you punished. Connolly adds, "On her side, it may be difficult for her husband to interest the district attorney or police into bringing a criminal action against her because of the parties involved in the dispute."

Don't forget that the credit card companies were defrauded, too. Your best policy with them is to make good on your monthly payments, and to pay the balances off as quickly as possible. If I were you, I'd reduce expenses, get a second job, sell things -- whatever it takes to get these debts off my back.

If legal action is taken against you, seek qualified legal counsel in your state immediately. If you can't afford a lawyer, look for low-cost legal help. Search online for low cost legal help in your state or city.

Connolly says, "Swallow your pride and play nice with your ex!" Show your ex that you can be responsible and that signing his name was a temporary lapse in judgment. Let's hope he calms down and is content with the fact that you're paying the bills yourself. Good luck!

See related: 9 steps for restoring trust after hidden debt is revealed

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Updated: 01-19-2019