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FS-Be Wary of Credit Issues with Ex
Jan L. Warner & Jan Collins

Question: My wife and I were divorced after a two-year marriage during which she ran up significant debt. We have no children. I had a lawyer, but she did not want one. We signed an agreement which, among other things, divided both our assets and liabilities. She and I agreed that because she had made the down payment with an inheritance, she would get the house - and pay off the mortgage. I gave her a lump sum with which she was obligated to pay off my part of the credit card and installment debt which she agreed to transfer into her name. Long story short, I began receiving notices from the holder of the mortgage and credit card companies that the payments were either late or not being made. I contacted my ex, and she assured me that she had made the payments and that the creditors' notices were in error.

Two months later, I was given notice that all of my credit cards were canceled, the house was in foreclosure, and my previously immaculate credit was in the sewer. When I could not get my now ex wife on the phone, I went to my lawyer who told me that we should cite her for contempt. But she has abandoned the house after getting an equity credit line on her own and has moved to another state without telling anyone. Is there anything I can do?

Answer: While we believe that the division of property and debt issues should have been handled very differently, short of bankruptcy, you should pay the accounts or see your credit suffer even more. The fact that you continued to receive statements of these accounts should have put you on notice that you continued to be responsible for these debts. Your lawyer should have told you that since your creditors were not parties to your agreement and divorce decree, they are not bound by your deal with your former wife, and you are still legally responsible to pay off these accounts. And what made anyone think that a creditor would release one person from liability for debt in today's fragile economic society?

That said, it is essential in divorces and separations that husbands, wives, and their lawyers pay very close attention to credit accounts which are either joint or on which there are authorized users. The same goes for home equity loans and mortgages.

Parties to matrimonial difficulties should first determine whether the accounts are joint or individual with authorized users. If joint, the account should be frozen so no more charges can be made, and efforts should be made to close and reopen it as individual accounts. If this can’t be accomplished, settlement negotiations should include efforts to have this account paid off at the time of the agreement or in a fashion that will protect both obligors.

If an account is in an individual name with an authorized additional user, the additional user privilege should be terminated immediately because the added user has no contractual liability to pay the debt.

Bottom Line: All issues of this nature must be accomplished in writing with the creditors before any agreement or decree is signed because court-ordered enforcement of these types of provisions is, at best, difficult. As you have learned, contempt is not a viable option under these circumstances when you have to chase your wife all over the United States to try to get blood out of a rock.

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Suggested Reading:
Separation and Divorce Guidebook
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FS-Be Wary of Credit Issues with Ex
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FS-Becareful of Bargaining Away Alimony As Child Support
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FS-Lawyer Tells Me to Lie & Pension Double Dipped
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FS-On and Off Again Reconciles Can Create Agreement Disasters
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FS-The Dangers of Family Loans
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FS-Transference of Affection & 10 Tips of Divorce
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