Divorce doesn't dissolve joint card debt

If you don't close joint accounts when you divorce, you're still responsible

The Credit Guy columnist Todd Ossenfort
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.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Credit Guy,
My ex-husband and I opened a joint credit card back in 1998. We used it some and paid the entire thing off. In 2004, I left my husband and moved out. He used our credit card, which I thought was closed, and racked up over $4,000 in about three months without my knowledge. He eventually declared bankruptcy, but he did not put this card in his bankruptcy because I was on the card and I wasn't filing with him. Now, years later, I get a summons to court for this money and the creditor is not coming after him. Is there anything I can do? I did not sign for any of those purchases, and I wasn't living with him at the time either. I don't have much money. I am lost on what to do about this. I would appreciate any advice you could give me. -- Joanne

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Joanne,
Unfortunately, the fact that you did not make any of the purchases on the credit card has no effect on your responsibility to pay. With a joint account, both parties are equally responsible for paying what is owed on the account, regardless of who made the purchases. For my readers who may be in a situation where they are splitting with someone with whom they have a joint account, you do not need the other person's permission to close the account. To be sure, close it yourself. (You can also brush up on our other tips on how to divide up debt during divorce.)

The first thing you need to do is find out when the account was charged off by the original creditor. The best place to learn this is by checking your credit report. Get a copy of all your credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus via annualcreditreport.com.

Next, review your credit reports and determine when the last payment date was for the original account. The account has been placed for collections I am sure, but the date you want to know is the last payment date made to the original creditor. The reason I want you to learn this date is because of the statute of limitations for collecting a debt. It could be that the statute in your state for collecting this debt has expired. You can find out what the statutes of limitation for your state here.

Typically, the clock starts running for the statute of limitations on the first date of delinquency, usually 180 days past due or when the account is charged off by the original creditor. However, this varies by state law, so you'll want to research this for your state. When you have a good idea of whether  the debt is past the statute of limitations, you will know how to proceed.

If the statute of limitation has expired, then it is called time-barred debt, meaning that it has passed the time when you can have a court ruling against you over it. You can use that defense in court to have the case dismissed. Keep in mind, you must appear or send in paperwork (whatever the court requires) to make such a defense. Should the case against you be dismissed due to the stastute of limitations send a cease-and-desist letter to the creditor or collection agency. They must by law abide by your request.

The statute of limitations, unfortunately, does not prevent creditors from filing a lawsuit to collect the deb -- only from doing successfully, if you put up a fight. So, you will need to be vigilant about any court summons that might appear in the future and continue to use the expired statute of limitations as your defense.

Should the debt be within the time frame allowed to collect in the courts, you will need to appear in court to tell your side of the story. Come prepared with a monthly amount that you can afford to pay and documentation of your other monthly expenses to show the judge. If you do not appear to defend your case, the creditor will be granted a judgment in the amount due that can be used to garnish wages, levy your bank account or place a lien on any real property you own.

Take care of your credit!  

See related: State statutes of limitation for credit card debt, Debt collection sample letters, How wage garnishment works -- and how to avoid it, Divorce and debt: Advice on dividing, paying off debt

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Updated: 11-25-2017