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Dear Credit Card Adviser,
My ex won’t pay toward joint credit card debt! How can I force her to pay?
— Doug

Dear Doug,
Assuming your ex is a former spouse, you may want to go ahead and review your divorce order.

“If the ex was required to (pay the debt) in the divorce order, then the remedy is a motion to enforce the order,” says Margot Saunders, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. This action may ultimately get her to pay.

Beyond that, however, you don’t have much legal recourse in this situation, since, well, legally you’re just as responsible for the credit card account as your ex is. Co-signing, unfortunately, works that way.

“These debts are generally joint and severable,” Saunders says. “In other words, to the creditor, each borrower owes the whole debt that is not paid by the other borrower.”

If neither of you makes any payments on the account, it will be go into default and really mess up your credit. A first missed credit card payment, for instance, can cause good scores to drop between 70 and 90 points. (As an aside, you can monitor your credit score for free at myBankrate.)

So, it’s in your best interest to at least make the monthly minimum payments while you try to work out a payment plan with your ex.

Of course, it’s in her best interest to keep the account in good standing as well.

“You have to explain (to your ex) it’s going to hurt their credit also, no matter what,” says Steve Repak, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based CFP professional. Outlining these consequences may be helpful in getting them to pay off and ultimately close the account.

These residual problems, incidentally, are among the reasons we advise people against co-signing, so as an obligatory side note, try to refrain from doing so in the future.

One alternative to co-signing involves adding the individual as an authorized user to one of your existing credit card accounts. You’ll still be responsible for the charges they ring up, but you’ll ultimately have more control over the account. (For instance, it’s relatively easy to kick them off an account if they start overspending.)

Good luck!

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