Resist racking up debt to get back at cheating spouse

The chances are good that you'll pay for your revenge

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,
My husband and I are not living together but are separated, and we technically, or legally, probably aren't even separated because we still are seeing each other occasionally. (I just got back from Iraq.) He is cheating on me, and he is in the Army, but the Army isn't doing anything about his adultery.

My first instinct is to run up his credit. Will I get in trouble? I mean, legally, we aren't separated if we still see each other, right? -- Melissa

Answer for the expert

Dear Melissa,
Surely you can think of better ways to punish a cheating husband than to run up his credit. If it were me, I'd look for something more satisfying and original -- and preferably more humiliating for him -- than running to the mall with his credit card.

Seriously, if you and your husband are still seeing each other, it's not really over. In fact, seeing each other when you're not living together is more intentional than just bumping into each other at the breakfast table every day. Divorce is a lot like bankruptcy -- sometimes it is necessary, but it should always be the last resort. If you're not absolutely sure you want this marriage to be over, I suggest finding a counselor or another wise person to help the two of you sort things out.

If you are determined to run up his credit, however, your legal liability depends on whether your name is on the account and the laws of your state.

If you do not live in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin) and you are not a joint account holder, you are generally not legally responsible for your husband's credit account balances. This is true even if you are an authorized user. (If you're not an authorized user, using his cards could get you in more trouble. Don't do it.)

If you're in a community property state, consult with a legal professional where you live. In some states, the marriage ends for community debt purposes when you no longer live together, whether or not you occasionally see each other. In other community property states, you can be liable for debts that are run up until the divorce is finalized.

Of course, if you are a joint account holder on those cards, it's your debt as much as his. Running up joint debt is like shooting holes in a boat you're both sitting in -- it's dramatic, but you might regret it after you've made your point.

Let's look into the future. You and your husband have two choices: patch things up or get a divorce. What happens to the debt in either case?

Say he turns around and is sorry, you forgive him and the two of you recommit to your marriage. Imagine you're back to smiling over the breakfast table and all is well -- and then the bill comes with the credit card damage you did when you were angry. Now you've got something to fight about, and you have to help pay every penny of it off, plus interest. Uh-oh.

On the other hand, say you decide he is incorrigible and you want to move on. You file for divorce. Those credit cards bills with a sudden spate of purchases at pricey clothing stores and spas will haunt you in divorce court. You get less in your settlement because of those debts. You lose again.

I don't blame you for being angry. Coming home from Iraq to a cheating husband seems like more trouble than a person should have to bear. I hope your marriage is salvageable, but if it is not, the best revenge is to do well without him. Put down the credit cards, and instead start setting boundaries with your husband.

Take care of yourself and your credit!

See related: Stuck with husband's debt in community property state?, Authorized users don't have to pay for cardholder's missteps, Credit card authorized users, joint account holders differ

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Updated: 01-23-2018