Sandra Scott shouldn't have let her ex-husband keep the house. When the two divorced in June 2005, they decided he would continue living there with their daughter. The plan? For him to refinance the property within 90 days of the divorce and become the sole debtor on the mortgage.
That never happened. Now mortgage payments have been late or not sent at all, and the house is in foreclosure.
The result: Scott's credit is in shambles. "I'm pretty strapped," says the 43-year-old, whose name we've changed due to privacy concerns. She now lives with a friend and can't take on a mortgage of her own, as she is still the primary holder on the old one. "My credit what I'm responsible for is impeccable. What he is responsible for, still in my name, has ruined everything good that I've done."
It's a predicament faced by many former couples today. The marriage may be over and the divorce papers long signed, but one strong bond remains: the credit they once took on together. That can cause trouble for either spouse if the other handles a joint account irresponsibly. Late payments on an account can drag down your credit score, even if your divorce decree says you're no longer responsible for the debt, says Gerri Detweiler, a credit educator and author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook."
And should one ex-spouse stop paying altogether, the creditor can go after the other for the balance. Fact is, even if the divorce decree spells out clearly who is responsible for what after the divorce, the lender doesn't really care about it, says John Ulzheimer, president of Credit.com Educational Services, a consumer-education web site. "The divorce decree doesn't override the original contract with the creditor," he says. "They'll go after both parties, with equal vigor, just as if they weren't divorced."
That's exactly why 60-year-old Eva Cornell (not her real name) of Charlotte, N.C., is paying off two of her ex-husband's credit cards. "There were court orders for him to pay them, but they're still in my name," she says. Because her ex is an air force pilot who spends a lot of time overseas and, as a result, is frequently late with bill payments, Cornell's credit score with one of the bureaus has plummeted down to 540, a subprime level that could disqualify her from getting loans altogether. To remedy her credit, Cornell recently called the issuers and asked that the statements be sent to her address. "If the scoring system does not allow for something that's actually a legal court order, what the heck do you do?" she asks. She is now paying off $10,000 in balances.
And then there are puzzling credit mix-up cases like Suzanne Lewis, 57, of Elmwood Park, N.J. Separated since 1991 and divorced since 1995, she and her ex don't speak, save for an obligatory "hello" at the occasional family function. But when several months ago, Lewis pulled her credit report for the first time, she was shocked to find her ex was still very much present in her credit file: His address where she's never lived was listed as her own, as were two of his individual credit-card accounts.
Because the accounts weren't hers the credit bureau confirmed they were her ex's Lewis had the errors removed with no harm done to her credit. "Luckily, he's a very good payer, so I've never had problems," she says. But if his accounts are on her report, she asks, what are the chances hers are on his report? "I just don't like him seeing how much my mortgage is, that's none of his business," she says. "And I don't want to see his personal business. I don't care about him."
It's a situation that Bob Brennin, a consumer-credit-protection attorney in Los Angeles, has seen at least half a dozen times over the past couple of years. Because the spouses previously had credit cards with these same creditors, it's possible their information was still mixed together, he says. For example, if either spouse ever listed the other on a credit application while they were married, their names could remain on record as spouses so that whenever one applied for credit, the other's information is added onto that new file, as well.
Then again, it's not uncommon that people intentionally add their ex-wife's or ex-husband's information on the application because they can't qualify for a loan on their own, Detweiler says. "I hear this very frequently," she says. "If you think of it, most spouses have their ex's information." It's a tricky situation, she adds, because the person who does this is in effect committing fraud.
If you're divorced or going through a divorce, chances are you'll be faced with some kind of credit-related situation. Here's how divorcing couples can divorce their credit histories.
1. Know your rights
If you're simply an authorized user on an account, the lender should agree to take your name off the account, Ulzheimer says. As an authorized user you are not liable for the debt. If your ex is the account holder, you may have to ask him or her to request the change, though. According to Detweiler, some credit-card issuers may require that the account holder make the call. Others may agree to take the name off the account regardless of who requests it.
If you're a co-signer or the account is held jointly, though, things may not be that easy. (See the advice below on what to do if that's the case.) And if a former spouse's individual account pops up in your credit report, dispute it with the bureaus. This may be a credit mix-up or even intentional fraud on part of your ex.
2. Refinance all joint debts
If you have joint debt whether it's credit cards, auto loans or a mortgage each spouse should refinance the debts they'll be responsible for as soon as possible, says Ulzheimer. That means closing all joint credit cards and transferring the balance to a new card in your name, for example, and refinancing the mortgage or auto loan.
Problem is, that's often easier said than done. With auto loans, for example, the spouse who's supposed to pay it off may find the vehicle has depreciated so much that the balance owed is more than what it's worth. (This is what the industry calls "upside down" on the loan.) With mortgages, one spouse alone may not have the income or required credit score to refinance in their name alone. If that's the case, Ulzheimer recommends, consider selling the property and splitting the proceeds, if any. Better yet, use these proceeds to pay off other joint debts.
3. Pay the debt offWho Gets the Home?
4. Monitor the accounts
If refinancing or paying off the debts isn't possible, make sure you monitor the accounts, Detweiler says. "That would be the one time when I'd sign up for a credit-monitoring service, preferably with all three agencies," she notes. If you notice the payments are late, consider stepping in even if your attorney or divorce decree says otherwise. "The credit damage stays with you for seven years," she says. "Do you really want to be reminded of your ex's poor credit habits for seven years?"