Is wife liable for ex's card debt?

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,
One of my relatives has a credit card. The husband can sign on the card, but not the wife. My relative's husband charged two cards up to the limits of $7,000 and $15,000, and then hid the U.S. mail from his wife for several months.

Their divorce is now in progress. I do not know what the money was spent on. Is my relative responsible for her husband's charges? -- Lily

Answer for the expert

Dear Lily,
The wife is generally not liable for her husband's credit card debts in non-community property states, provided that she is just an authorized user on the account -- not a joint account holder.

In community property states, however, creditors can pursue a spouse for community debt, and the spouse is presumed to be liable unless she can show otherwise. The community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington  and Wisconsin. Alaska is an opt-in community property state.

In the divorce decree, assets and liabilities are divided between the husband and wife. If the husband was spending money and not telling the wife, she probably did not benefit from the expenditures. In fact, he may have been spending the money on wayward ventures that contributed to the divorce. The judge in the divorce case should take into consideration these and any other property transfers or extraordinary expenses when allocating assets and liabilities to each spouse.

If at all possible, these credit cards should be paid off as part of the divorce settlement, especially if she is in a community property state. Many people make the mistake of thinking that a divorce decree gets them off the hook for a debt. Unfortunately, the divorce court has no jurisdiction over contracts with outside parties. The divorce decree can tell the husband to pay the credit card bills, but it can't stop the creditor from trying to collect from the other party if he doesn't.

Whether you live in a community property state or not, creditors can attempt to collect from both spouses, forcing the spouse who didn't spend the money to defend himself or herself. That's another good reason to see that the debts are paid.

The wife in this case should immediately make a list of all accounts -- investment, mortgage, insurance, and so on -- and document their status. She should also check her credit report and make sure there are no other accounts she's not aware of.

If she and her husband have any joint credit cards or bank accounts, she should notify the banks of the pending divorce and close as many accounts as possible immediately. Make sure she follows any rules of the divorce court, so she doesn't end up being the one in trouble.

I hope your relative has a good lawyer. If her soon-to-be ex is capable of this type of sneaky behavior, what else is he capable of? Forging signatures and draining retirement accounts? Sneaking money out of the house with secret home equity loans? The credit card debt may be insignificant compared to other damage a shady ex like this can do.

See related: Stuck with husband's debt in community property state?, 8 things cardholders should know about community property laws?

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Updated: 01-23-2018