Forgotten card leads to post-divorce strife

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,
My ex-husband and I got Capital One credit cards together. Both our names were on the card, and I was the secondary, authorized user. After the divorce, he was back in the Air Force and traveling all the time for seven years. I continued to use the cards, paying monthly payments from my bank accounts.

He got back recently in U.S. and was checking his credit report, and he saw our cards with balances. He called the bank and said that he didn't remember the card and never opened it and claimed it was fraud. Then he realized that he forgot about the cards, and that I might still be using them. But it took him two weeks to realize that.

I called the bank and they said that it's under investigation and they can't do anything at that point. I asked him to call the bank to clear it up, but they told him that it was under investigation and they can't do anything to stop the investigation now. What should I do? I'm in serious trouble. The cards were in my name. Is there any legal implication for me?

I also want to point out that when we divorced, I contacted the bank to try to get him off the card and just have it be under my name, but the bank refused because there was unpaid balance. Will be looking forward to your answer. Thank you!    -- Anna


Dear Anna,
You can relax, as far as the fraud investigation goes. If you were an authorized user on the card, and your ex never removed you from the account, you did not commit fraud by using the card. The bank may proceed with its investigation, but the only conclusion it should come to is that you were authorized to use the card, and your husband never took you off the account.

I'm not surprised that you could not have your husband removed from the card when you divorced. He was the accountholder and you were the authorized user. If you remove the main cardholder from a card, the account no longer exists. Credit card companies don't move accounts from one person to another. The only way you can get your own card is to apply, using your income, credit history and other information. In other words, as an authorized user, you were just a guest on his card, not the accountholder and, as such, ultimately not responsible for repayment.

That's not to say you shouldn't pay for what you charged, however, as that is and always should be the right thing to do.

Although you did not commit fraud by using a card on which you were an authorized user, you may have acted in violation of the divorce decree if it stated you were to stop using the card. If that's the case, your ex could take you to court to force you to pay the balance. If you're making payments and plan to pay the balance, however, there's no reason for him to do that.

You should stop using the card immediately, of course. I also recommend finding a way to pay off the card as quickly as possible. Perhaps you can get a low-interest card and transfer the balance to it. Be sure to find a card with low or no balance transfer fees, if you choose that option. Otherwise, try to put as much money every month toward the balance, even if you have to find a way to earn more, cut back in other areas of your budget or sell something. This debt is causing you stress, and the best way to get rid of it is to pay it off.

After a breakup, it's best to sever all financial ties with your ex. In fact, as soon as a relationship is over, you should close all shared accounts. As a single person, you need to have complete control of your credit. Best of luck to you as you build your own credit history and plan your financial future.

See related: Think you're a joint account holder? Think again, Debt and divorce: 5 steps to make a clean credit split

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Updated: 01-21-2019