Dear Debt Adviser,
I have a credit card debt that I cannot pay. I offered 50 percent (that my parents would be paying) to settle the debt of $14,000, but the creditor refused it. I do not have any more money. I do not have any assets. I currently work but will have to take maternity leave soon and will lose my job. What happens if the creditor sues me? Can that affect my husband? He has a car that is paid off. Can they take his assets? He works. Can they garnish his wages?
— Pati

Dear Pati,
Congratulations on the upcoming addition to your family and my condolences on your problem debt. With a new baby on the way, your life is about to change forever. The stress from your credit card debt is not something you need right now, but I think I may be able to help with your collection issue so that you can focus on your bundle of joy and not your bundle of debt!

First, let’s discuss how your debt could affect your husband. Whether it can depends on several factors. Is the debt in your name only? Do you live in a community property state? Was the debt incurred before or after your marriage?

If the debt is in your name only and you do not live in a community property state, the creditor cannot sue anyone but you to collect the debt. The creditor is not likely to give up on a $14,000 debt even if you do not have a job. In my experience, for that much money, creditors are willing to wait, sometimes patiently and sometimes not, until you are once again employed.

If you live in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and sometimes Alaska) and the debt was incurred before your marriage, the creditor can only attempt to collect from you and not your husband. However, if the debt was incurred after your marriage and you live in a community property state, the creditor can attempt to collect from your husband as well once the debt goes to collection.

In most states, your vehicles are safe from collection activity. Still, I want you to avoid worrying about how debt collection may affect you and your husband. You need to find a resolution before debt collection proceeds far enough that you are sued in court.

Here are four options that may help. First, your parents were willing to lend or give you $7,000 to settle the debt. Instead, ask them to make at least minimum payments on the debt while you are on maternity leave. If they make a $400 payment each month for you until you go back to work, this will satisfy the credit card company, save them some money in the long run, and keep you sane and focused on more important matters. Once you go back to work, you will need to develop a plan for paying the remaining balance on your credit card debt. It also wouldn’t hurt to try to come up with a way to repay your parents once the debt is paid off.

Second, consider trimming your maternity leave to the time allowed by your current employer so that you can return to work at the same company and not have to worry about finding another job.

Third, to minimize your monthly payment and give you a plan for your post-baby future, I want you to speak to a nonprofit credit counseling agency. They often can get lower payments approved by your creditors. Plus, they can help you put together a budget so you can plan for your baby expenses and know how much you’ll need to make once you go back to work. You may find that returning part-time will be enough. Or not. But at least you’ll know for sure.

Lastly, if none of the above work, consult with a bankruptcy attorney and determine if you would qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy to eliminate the debt. Understand that if you choose this option, you will seriously damage your credit and the bankruptcy will remain on your credit reports for 10 years. A bankruptcy may complicate your ability to get a new job if a prospective employer pulls a credit report as part of the hiring process. It also may raise your insurance rates.

Pati, if your husband is unaware of your credit card debt, now is the time to tell him. He will especially need to know should you decide to file for bankruptcy because the attorney will need to know the income and assets of the family, not just you.

Good luck!

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