Getting divorced is hard enough. Having an ex-spouse destroy your credit score is even worse.
U.S. divorce rates for Americans, especially couples over the age of 50, are on the rise, according to a 2017 report from Pew Research Center.
While the end of a marriage or any long-term romantic relationship brings formidable challenges to your mental health, your credit health is also vulnerable.
There are many ways credit can be destroyed by an ex-spouse or live-in partner, and it’s up to you to protect your finances and your credit health when you exit a relationship. That’s especially the case where your partner had (or has) access to your bank account, credit score, and digital devices used to manage finances.
“Any time you have joint ownership of an account, whether that be an investment account, bank account, credit card or loan, you’re ultimately responsible for keeping the account current and you cannot rely on the other person on the account to meet that responsibility,” says Marc Kaplan, divorce attorney at Kaplan Law in Denver, Col. “So, unless the account is paid off and closed, you remain ultimately responsible to the bank, credit card company, or other entity.”
Once you know the divorce or breakup is going through, take these steps to protect your credit from a disgruntled ex-lover:
Place a credit freeze on all three credit reports (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax) — “This prevents anyone from opening new accounts in your name,” notes Sonya Smith-Valentine, a former attorney who specialized in financial disputes and founder of the firm, Financially Fierce, LLC. “Also, change the passwords on all of your devices, computers and phones and change the passwords for your accounts.”
If you have joint credit card accounts, try and convert it to a single account — “That way you don’t lose your good credit history,” says Smith-Valentine. “If you can’t convert it, close the account. While closing good accounts is not my favorite move, it does prevent an ex from running up debt on the account.”
Be prepared to make payments on joint debt if your ex-spouse doesn’t make payments — Creditors don’t care that you are going through a divorce, adds Smith-Valentine. “If it’s a joint debt, they expect payment from both parties,” she says. “Creditors will report missed payments on your credit report even if the ex-spouse was the one ordered by court to make the payments.”
Pull your credit report and monitor it monthly — You can pull your credit report for free once per year at annualcreditreport.com, says Christine Maxwell, founder of Her Money Moves, a personal financial site geared to military spouses, located in Colorado Springs, Col. “I monitor my credit monthly to help me see what I’m doing each month to help or hurt my score,” Maxwell says.
Get credit cards in your name only — Be sure that you’re aware of all credit cards that are in your name, and either pay them off or divide up the debts and transfer debts to new cards that are in your individual name, advises Marilyn Timbers, a Voya financial advisor and divorce specialist based in Stamford, Conn. “Doing so will remove your liability for your ex’s debt, which could affect your ability to qualify for loans and other credit,” Timber explains. “Closing older cards could reduce your credit score, but you’ll no longer be responsible for any debt that your ex could run up on the joint card.”
Retitle assets, too — You’ll need to refinance any existing mortgages, change the deed of the house and remove your ex-spouse’s name from the loan, advises Aviva Pinto, a certified divorce financial analyst and a director at Bronfman Rothschild in New York City. “Bank accounts that are in joint names need to have your ex’s name removed and any bills for utilities, rent, cell phones and car loans should all be retitled because missed payments will affect your credit score,” Pinto says.
Using the steps above should help you keep your credit healthy in a marital split
Divorce Mortgage Pro Commentary:
I cannot stress enough how important that it is to protect your credit. The damage if you do not can be substantial and far reaching to your overall financial health. My recommendation is stay focused on the new start that the divorce brings and avoid looking back at the issues that led to the divorce and that may drive you to making bad credit decisions. Additionally, the involvement of professionals including but not limited to financial professionals, mental health professionals and divorce coaches.