Help! My husband's ruining my credit

Opening Credits columnist Eric Sandberg
Erica Sandberg is a prominent personal finance authority and author of "Expecting Money: The Essential Financial Plan for New and Growing Families." She writes "Opening Credits," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues for people who are new to credit, for

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Question for the expert Dear Opening Credits,
I have a joint Visa card with my husband. He was supposed to be paying the bill on time, but has gone crazy lately and not only has run the bill up to the max, but has not paid in over three months. I've come to find this out by the nonstop and terrible phone calls from a collection agency. What can I do to protect my credit and my money now? -- Chloe 

Answer for the expert Dear Chloe,
I'm afraid that there is no simple way out of this debt. Nor can you do much about the damage this delinquent account is doing to your credit rating. Sadly, this is what can occur with joint accounts, and it's the reason I'm so opposed to them in the first place. 

It's true that many couples open and use jointly held credit cards effectively, and it's great when that happens. However, many others experience problems similar to yours. This is frustrating to me, because it's so avoidable! All you have to do is keep your personal credit cards separate and not merge new accounts with anyone else. Yes, even with a spouse. There is no ordinance that says you have to combine credit after walking down the aisle and, in general, I say don't.

So why are you just as responsible for the balance due as your husband, even if he was the person who should have been paying all along? Because you promised the credit card company that you would.

When the two of you applied for that credit card, the company checked the credit and income information of both parties to see if you qualified. They then granted you both the account as co-owners and issued each of you a card. Though your husband might have been the primary account holder and had the statements go to him, you were just as liable for the balance as he. Yes, even if you didn't make the charges or receive the bills.

In essence, the credit card company loaned the money and they expect it back. When that didn't happen, they reported the missing payments from both of you to the three major credit bureaus. You can't dispute that with the credit bureaus because it really did happen and because your name is legally on the account. After 180 days passed with the account in arrears, the issuer has to charge off your debt from its books and either sue or sell the account to a third-party collector. They did the latter, which was also noted on your and your husband's credit reports.

The collection agency has the right to contact you and ask for payment. They also may take you to court, and if they think you have the assets, it's possible that they will. Therefore, if you have the cash to pay in full, do so. Your credit reports and scores will begin to improve as soon as the debt shows as paid. 

If funds are very tight (or you don't care so much about your credit rating, you just want the calls to stop) consider asking for a settlement, which is paying less than what you owe. Some collection agencies will also accept installments, but usually only if you can break up the total debt into a few big chunks.

In the event that you have limited assets and no jobs (and no prospect of getting them in the foreseeable future), let the collector know. You and your husband could be "judgment proof." Essentially, this means that they can take you to court, but even if they win the case they can't get anything because you've got nothing for them to take. The final option is bankruptcy. If it's right for you, you may consider filing, since it will stop the calls and you can begin to rebuild.

See related: Is wife liable for ex's card debt?

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Updated: 10-23-2018