Todd Ossenfort has been chief operating officer for Pioneer Credit Counseling since 1998. He writes our weekly “The Credit Guy” column, answering reader questions about credit counseling and debt issues.
Dear Credit Guy,
Help! I just reviewed my credit report. I was divorced in 1999 and just found out my ex has a credit card bill of almost $30,000. This was charged AFTER the divorce. On my credit report, it states that the account owner is the authorized user. Can I be liable for this debt? Who is the authorized user, myself or my ex? I’m scared to death! — Rick
Don’t panic. The first thing you need to do is determine what is going on with this account. Is it an account that you had when you were married that you forgot about, a new account opened after you divorced or something else?
Without seeing your credit report, it is difficult to say, but if you are the authorized user on the account, you would not be responsible for the debt. However, you need to be sure. The account listing on your credit report should include contact information for the card issuer. Call the issuer and ask if you are an authorized user on the account or if you are the primary account holder. If the issuer says you are an authorized user, they cannot discuss the account with you further because you are not the cardholder.
If you are the authorized user, you need to have your name removed from the account. The main reason being that the account could negatively affect your credit if mishandled by your ex. Unfortunately, a divorce does not separate credit accounts shared jointly by two spouses. The only way to be relieved of responsibility on a credit contract that you jointly signed as a married couple is to close the account, alter the terms of the loan or, in the case of an authorized user account, have the authorized user’s name removed from the account.
To have your authorized user status removed, contact the card issuer and request that your name be removed from the account. You will need to have the security information for the account to request the change. The security information for many card issuers is the cardholder’s account number, billing address and the last four digits of the cardholder’s Social Security number. If you cannot provide this information, you will need to have the primary cardholder, your ex-spouse, make the request.
Should you learn from the card issuer that you are the person responsible for the account and your ex-spouse is the authorized user, ask the issuer to send you verification that you are indeed the primary account holder. Because you were not aware of the account and the charges were made after the divorce, she may have opened a new account in your name and named herself the authorized user. If that is the case, your ex-spouse stole your identity, and you could report the account as such. Doing so would legally implicate your ex-spouse in a crime.
Before you take such drastic steps, however, you might let her know that you are aware that she opened an account in your name without your permission and that if she moves the balance to a card in her own name and closes the account, you will not report the identity theft. Keep in mind that until the balance is moved to an account in her name or you report the account as identity theft, you are financially responsible for the balance on the account.
One last thing: To avoid unpleasant surprises like this one, it is an excellent idea to check your credit reports once each year. You can do so for free at www.annualcreditreport.com.
Take care of your credit!
See related:Piggybacking, meant to jump-start credit, can backfire, Dividing credit card card debt in divorce, Create a separate credit identity after divorce, Protect your credit score during divorce
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