Divorce: Sue ex over credit card debt?

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Dear Debt Adviser,
I was divorced in 2001, and my ex took responsibility for all of our marital debt (joint credit cards, mortgage and car loan) as part of the divorce decree. Late in 2010, I started getting phone calls from people who were looking for my ex. It made me suspicious, so I ran my credit report. Sure enough, he’d racked up $20,000 in credit card debt.

I have not spoken to or seen this man since we divorced. I called the credit card company to tell them this was not me. I faxed them a copy of the divorce decree, and they left me alone. However, it has destroyed my credit by having a charge-off on the credit card. Can I do anything about this? Can I sue my ex for any of this? Thank you for your time.
— Desperate Marcia

Dear Desperate Marcia,
Yes, you can sue your ex. You can even sue your divorce lawyer for not insisting that all joint accounts be closed before the divorce decree was issued. It’s important to cut financial ties after a divorce specifically because of the problems you’re dealing with now. Former President Reagan said it best: “Trust, but verify!”

Here’s what you need to do now. First, determine who owns the credit card that is charged off. Review all three of your credit reports carefully and verify ownership on all your accounts. You opened the account when you were married as either a joint account (where you were both owners) or in his name as the owner and you as an authorized user. The ownership of the account makes a huge difference.

If you’re only an authorized user on the account, you cannot be held financially responsible for the charges. But if you are a joint owner on the account, the creditor is within its legal rights to attempt to collect the debt from you. The reason is because the contract for the credit card is not canceled by the divorce decree. The decree is between you and your husband only.

Next, close any joint accounts that are still active with your ex. I recommend you call the card issuer and follow up in writing. I’d also ask for your name to be removed from any accounts on which you are an authorized user.

There is nothing you can do to get the bureaus to remove an accurate charge-off on a joint account. The credit bureaus will only remove the account once your name has been removed as an authorized user by the card issuer. Moving forward, I want you to check your credit every year for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. It’s quick and easy. Any damage from your ex will have less impact as time elapses. Within two years of resolving the charge-off, your credit score should begin to bounce back up to its previously high level.

Ask your (new) attorney about having the court hold your ex in contempt for not living up to his divorce decree. The threat of jail time is more effective than you trying to get him to shape up.

Good luck!

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