The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act allows credit reporting agencies to provide credit information to people or entities with a "valid need," including creditors, insurers or landlords. You must give consent before a reporting agency can provide information to your employer or potential employer.
There is no exception for spouses.
"Everyone has their own credit report, and it's private to them," says Rod Griffin, director of education at Experian, 1 of the 3 major credit bureaus.
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Even though you shouldn't sneak a peek on your own, credit experts advise couples to share their reports and use the information to set financial goals together.
Spouses should get their reports from all 3 major credit bureaus -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax -- since any 1 might contain errors, and each likely will contain slightly different information, says Lili Vasileff, founder of Divorce and Money Matters, a divorce financial planning firm in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Once couples have the reports, Vasileff says spouses:
- Who have excellent credit can strategize how to get the cheapest financing.
- With unequal credit can decide whose credit to use in which situations.
- Can dispute credit report errors that could cause them to pay higher financing costs.
- Can monitor each other's credit habits, including open credit accounts, high balances and late payments.
- Can make sure they each have credit established in their own names -- an important precaution in the case of divorce or a spouse's death.
If your spouse won't share his credit report with you, you might have reason to be concerned.
"Hidden in those reports could be credit taken out in your name jointly with your spouse that you had no idea about or a mortgage for a property you didn't even know your spouse owned," Vasileff says.
Asking your spouse for permission to obtain his credit report can be tricky, says Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations and external affairs for the National Association for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.
Accessing a credit report that is not your own could be a form of fraud or identity theft. There is no exception for spouses.
That's because some people view sharing such information as an invasion of privacy even if they're married.
"It's not yours to take," McClary says. "Being married to them doesn't matter; you still have to get their permission."
If you do make the request -- and McClary says it should be a request, not a demand -- be prepared to reciprocate.
Benefits can include a healthier and more secure marriage, since financial secrecy, financial concerns and financial stress are among the leading causes of marital separation and divorce.
"The fewer secrets you keep," McClary says, "the better you are about ensuring you're not going to go down that path toward divorce because of financial problems."
Going behind a partner's back
Sometimes, 1 spouse's motivations to seek the other person's credit report might not be totally benign. Your spouse may want to grab your report to look for open lines of credit that may prove infidelity -- or at least financial infidelity.
If you're suspicious of your spouse's intentions, check your credit report, and look for inquiries that appear to be from you, but weren't.
Freezing your credit history can make it more difficult for your spouse to access your report.
The process might involve a fee, and you'll have to take additional steps to thaw your file if you later want to obtain new credit.
If you want to legally get access to your spouse's credit report without permission, you'll need a subpoena or other court order. Griffin says a court order is permissible within the Fair Credit Reporting Act, although a report obtained in this manner likely would be given to the attorneys in your case or the court itself, not directly to you.