When collectors come after you for ex's unpaid debt

Gather the facts to see if you are responsible to pay

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.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear To Her Credit,
I got a divorce more than six years ago. Four years later, my ex-husband dug out a joint charge card that hadn't been used in years and that I had forgotten about. He charged almost $10,000 dollars on it -- without telling me, of course. Then he filed for bankruptcy. I knew nothing about this. Now the credit card company has found me and wants me to pay the bill. What should I do? -- Holly

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Holly,
It certainly doesn't seem fair for you to get stuck with the bill for your ex-husband's irresponsible spending. Legal and fair are not always the same thing, however.

"If she is a joint account holder, the bank has every right to pursue it," says Wesley K. Young, legislative director of The Association of Settlement Companies (TASC) and general counsel, Debt Settlement America. Your name is on the card and they can't get money from him. They will try to get payment from you.

Before you pay it, however, here are a few things you should check out:

1. You can protest the debt. Young says it's a muddy area when the divorce was so long ago and you had nothing to do with the charges. "I think she could absolutely challenge it," he says. "Show them the divorce decree. I don't think it's clear cut." Send a letter to the credit card company explaining the situation and attach a copy of your divorce decree.

2. Read your divorce decree and see if it includes a blanket statement about any future incurred debt (most do). The divorce decree should also list all assets and debts and who gets what. With a debt this size, you might want to consult with your divorce lawyer.

3. Your ex-husband may not be off the hook for this debt even if he filed for bankruptcy. First, find out what kind of bankruptcy he filed for. If he filed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy and this debt was included, he doesn't have to pay it. However, more people now are doing a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which does not wipe out your debts like a Chapter 7 filing does. "If he filed Chapter 13, he is still going to pay off some of that debt," says Young. If he has a steady income, my guess is that he's doing a Chapter 13. In that case, the courts have made a payment plan for him and he must pay off all or most of his debts, including this one. The more he pays, the less you have to.

4. Make sure this is really a joint account. If you are the primary cardholder or if it is a joint account, you can be held liable. However, if your ex added you as an authorized user only, the balance is not your problem. Authorized users can charge on an account, but they are not liable for it. You're entitled to one free credit report a year from each of the three major credit bureaus. Use that right. Your credit report will show if you are only an authorized user.

5. You say you had "forgotten" this account. Are you sure you forgot it, or did your ex open it without your knowledge? It's not uncommon for spouses or ex-spouses to forge each other's signatures to open accounts. If your ex pulled that stunt, you are not liable. He, however, is in deep legal trouble. (See What to do when your ex steals your identity).  Again, this is where your credit report will be helpful. If, for example, the account was opened after you separated and could no longer be present to sign a credit application, that's useful information.

I hope you can work this out quickly. In the meantime, you -- and anyone else ending a relationship -- should always cut all financial ties and close accounts as quickly as possible. Many people have thought their ex-spouses would never do such a thing as run up a bill and leave it for them to pay. If my inbox is any indication, however, it's all too common a problem.

Take care of your credit!

See related: What to do when your ex steals your identity, Authorized user or joint account holder, Dividing credit card debt in divorce,  Free credit reports: How to get the ones that really are free

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Updated: 01-23-2018