Stop soon-to-be ex from sticking you with joint 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 Dear Sally, 
I am about to go through a divorce. Right before my husband filed, we took out a debt consolidation loan. Now he is trying to take his name off the loan so he won't have to help me make the loan payment. Can he do that? – Kathy


Dear Kathy,
No, he cannot just take his name off a loan if he was a primary or joint borrower. When banks lend money based on all or partly on someone’s income and other information, they don’t let them off that easily.

The fact that he tried to consolidate all your debts into one loan and then shuffle it all off onto you makes me think your husband is being a bit sneaky, though. I’d double-check to make sure he didn’t get you to sign as the responsible borrower when you got the loan.

Your husband may not be as clever as he thought, however. Even if he had succeeded in shuffling all the debts into your name right before he filed for divorce, when you go through divorce proceedings, the court looks at all the marital assets and debts. They take many things into consideration, and attempt to split the assets and debts equitably. If he had finagled a debt consolidation loan in your name only, that doesn’t mean he’d get away without paying in divorce court. If you get good legal counsel for your divorce, they should help you get an equitable settlement, which includes not being saddled with more than your share of the debt.

In the meantime, here’s what you should do to protect yourself:

  1. Check to make sure your husband is a responsible party on the debt consolidation loan.
  2. Make sure all your other joint cards and bank accounts are closed. If you have any credit cards on which he is an authorized user (meaning he can spend but isn’t responsible for the balance), remove him as an authorized user.
  3. Change passwords on any of your personal, financial and retail accounts he may have had access to. Change passwords on every online store account, including PayPal, Amazon and so on, while you’re at it.
  4. Put a fraud alert on your credit file. A fraud alert is not necessary in all divorce cases, but I’d get one in a hurry with someone as sneaky as this. The last thing you need is for him to open new accounts in your name – which is all too easy to do. A fraud alert is free and requires lenders to go through extra steps to make sure it’s actually you before they open accounts in your name. The alert stays in place for 90 days, but can be renewed after that. An alert prevents your husband from going online, answering a few easy security questions and getting brand new credit cards or loans while pretending to be you.

Although it could be tempting, don’t retaliate or try any of your husband’s tactics on him. It will only make things worse.

One positive thing in this situation is that all your other credit cards and other accounts should have been closed when you got the debt consolidation loan. That means he can’t try a common divorce trick – spending up to the limit on credit cards to splurge on luxury items, or just out of spite.

In the divorce negotiations, try to get the debt consolidation loan paid off with marital assets, if at all possible. It’s never a clean break with an ex as long as you have joint debt. Besides, the lender is not bound by the divorce decree. If the divorce court says you both have to make the payments, but he doesn’t pay his share, you’ll be stuck with it all. It’s better to sell real estate or cars if necessary, just to get any joint debt out of the way.

As soon as you know you are getting a divorce, you should start building your own financial life. If you don’t have separate bank accounts, get them. If you don’t already have one, consider getting a credit card in your name only to start building or rebuilding your credit. You may be surprised how well you can do managing your own money by yourself. Good luck as you take control of your money and your financial life!

See related: Debt and divorce: 5 steps to make a clean split, Ways an ex can ruin your credit during breakup, divorce

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Updated: 11-24-2017