Credit Report Issues During Separation and Divorce: Part I
By: Cynthia Robbins
Separation and divorce proceedings can be extremely painful and difficult to endure. As many issues need to be ultimately resolved through negotiations and, at times, litigation, one issue of particular importance is the individuals’ credit reports and how the decisions in these proceedings may impact each party’s credit.
These are some issues to consider as you work with experienced attorneys who specialize in these types of issues and who are ready to assist you and help you navigate these difficult challenges:
1. What is your credit score? Do you know what credit score each of the three major credit reporting bureaus is reporting that matches your social security number?
If you don’t know, you are not alone, and you can determine this information quickly using various sources. Although there are free options to obtain a credit report once per year through the credit reporting bureaus, many choose to immediately get a three-bureau report that also includes the three FICO scores.
The three major credit reporting bureaus are Trans Union, Experian, and Equifax. A credit report alone does not list a FICO Score, and FICO scores can be calculated differently through different bureaus. One tool that can provide this information to you immediately for a small fee is choosing to order a three-bureau report and three credit scores through services such as myfico.com.
Individuals may typically pay for scores for one month, but it’s important to immediately cancel the subscription unless you want to be charged each month to maintain a monthly subscription option. A report like this can immediately provide you with access to up-to-date information regarding your three-bureau report as well as your FICO scores. Often, individuals can order these reports each quarter to accurately begin to take responsibility for their own financial health and future.
2. What do I do once I receive my three-bureau report and three FICO scores?
Knowledge is power, and as scary as it may be to look at this information, it’s always better to know than not know if you want to be able to make the best decisions for you and your family going forward. If this information is worse than you expected or your spouse has made decisions that have damaged your credit history, focus your energies on what you can do now and in the future. Don’t waste your energy on staying angry about the past. You have got to move forward yourself if you want your own credit history to improve.
- First, confirm the information is accurate.
- Second, if the information is not accurate, then file online disputes with the individual credit reporting agencies reporting inaccurate information. At times, you may need to file disputes directly with the creditors as well.
- Whenever possible, when a debt is under your name solely or jointly, keep making the monthly payments on time. Although it’s tempting not to make payments on joint accounts, especially when you become aware that the spouse has been accruing additional debt without your knowledge, the payment history on these accounts is going to impact your financial future – positively or negatively.
- Don’t make emotional decisions – get help from your attorney to determine each particular account’s best course of action. While it makes sense to close joint accounts, if these accounts are the oldest ones on your credit report and they are all closed, you may seriously damage the length of your credit history, which could negatively impact your financial strength for years in the future.
- Don’t expect your spouse to pay accounts in your name only or joint accounts. Even when a court orders this division, creditors are not parties to the court orders, and as such, are not bound by these terms. They can continue to pursue the names of all individuals on the accounts, even when the debt has been listed as the other party’s responsibility on a court order.
For example, you and your spouse have a joint credit card. The balance on the account is $10,000. The court orders your spouse to pay off the $10,000. Then, the spouse continues to make late payments or stops making payments altogether. If you are not reviewing your credit reports monthly or checking your online accounts each month to confirm the payments are being made, the following may happen:
Your credit history is negatively impacted every time a payment is made more than 30, 60, 90, and 120 days late. It is also impacted when it becomes a collection account and even further impacted if the creditor closes the account.
So, if your spouse makes ten late payments, you now have ten late payments on your credit history as well. If the account goes into collection, you may be pursued by a debt collector or the creditor directly. If the account goes into charge-off status, you may be further impacted, and in some states, you may be sued, and a judgment may be obtained against you. Then the creditors can move forward to garnish your wages and/or place a lien on your house to satisfy the judgment. Many times interest and late fees will significantly increase the original balance. So a $10,000 account that goes unpaid for an extended length of time may ultimately end up being $15,000 to $20,000 or more to resolve.
3. What can I do then about joint accounts?
- Unless closing the account will destroy your own length of credit history, closing the account is typically the best option.
- Continue to make the payments on time yourself, and don’t expect anyone else to protect your credit history.
- Consider not assigning any joint accounts to the other party to avoid these situations from occurring. Negotiate the balances due during the settlement proceedings. Then take all or as much money as possible to pay off these debts yourself. This will ensure that you will be protected as much as possible from this point on from any further damage.
4. But why can’t the judge just help me if my spouse has been assigned the accounts?
Many creditors do not recognize settlement agreements as eliminating the joint owner’s responsibility because the creditor was not a party to the agreement. The only contract the creditor has remains between both parties, and many will aggressively pursue the balances from either party legally until the balances are paid off. Although you and your attorney can go back to the judge and report the other party for not paying, the judge can’t force the party to pay the creditor directly and certainly cannot undo the damage that has been made on your credit report.
5. Consider opening an account in your own name if possible and make your payments on time to begin improving your own credit history.
At times, this might be a good strategy to start building credit on your own, but talk to your attorney to get input and direction, as this information would, in most cases, need to be disclosed to the other party.
To learn more about divorce, visit our Divorce Law page.
Related: Divorce Law
Cynthia Robbins is an Associate Attorney at WhitbeckBennett. She has extensive in-house experience working for both for-profit corporations and non-profit organizations. Ms. Robbins has worked in the United States, England, Singapore, and India. She especially enjoys legal technology and has gained over 20 years of experience working on various litigation support teams and completing discovery work through both traditional review methods and eDiscovery tools. To Learn more about Cynthia Robbins, click here.