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4 common myths about debt and marriage

By Sally Herigstad
Published: August 13, 2010

To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also wrote for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear To Her Credit,
My husband continues to charge on his cards, which are only in his name since before we married. I believe he is spending cash on infidelity pleasures and then using the credit cards to cover household bills.

How can I stop from being responsible for any debt incurred by him as soon as possible? Thank you for your help. -- Jan

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Jan,
Unfaithfulness inevitably takes many forms, from diversion of affection and time to squandering of money that should be reserved for the support and protection of one's family. If you believe your husband is being unfaithful, you must immediately take steps to protect yourself.

Unfortunately, several common myths about debt and marriage can make it harder to keep your financial situation secure:

Myth No. 1: As long as credit cards are in your spouse's name, you're safe.
Not necessarily. If you live in a community property state, you can be liable for all debt incurred during the marriage, whether or not your name is on it. (Community property states are California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Idaho, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Alaska is an "opt-in" community property state.) In any state, creditors can try to collect from you regardless of whether the cards are in your name if you benefited from the expenditures.

Even if you are not legally responsible to the credit card company, if you go to divorce court, the debts are going to be divided there.

Myth No. 2: If you move out, for purposes of community property laws, the marriage is over.
That's true in most community property states, but not all. Michele Lowenstein, San Diego attorney and certified family law specialist, says, "Some states have a different definition of the length of the marriage. The length of the marriage is determined from the date of the marriage until the date of separation, but in Arizona and Nevada, it's until the divorce is final."

Myth No. 3: In divorce, he'll have to pay for things he bought.
Lowenstein says, "Even if one party used them (the credit cards) more than the other, courts don't want to figure out who bought this sweater and who bought this scarf." On the other hand, using community funds on liaisons can reduce the amount he gets in a divorce. "If he's cheating and using community funds, that would be something that would be owed back to the community," she says.

Myth No. 4: If a divorce court says one spouse has to pay off a debt, the other spouse can stop worrying about it.
As many ex-spouses have found out the hard way, a divorce decree doesn't stop creditors from trying to collect from either spouse.

The bigger question about what you should do next depends on you. Somehow you need to find out if your suspicions are true. I hope they turn out to be unfounded. Even if they are not, you have decisions to make, and your liability for credit card debt will probably be low on the list of reasons for that decision.

Lowenstein deals with family law issues every day, but she never tells people whether they should get a divorce. "If you haven't left because of the infidelity, you're not going to leave because of the debt," she says. People often put up with a lot before they file for divorce. There are so many reasons not to file -- family, pride, not knowing how to support oneself, morals and even hope that things will turn around for the better.

Please talk to a counselor or trusted friend for help sorting out your suspicions and making life changing decisions.

No matter where you live or what you decide to do, check your credit report on a regular basis to make sure you aren't on any credit cards or other accounts you don't know about. (It happens!)

If you decide to stay with your husband and you live in a community state, there's not much you can do to protect yourself from his debts while you're married to him, according to Lowenstein.

If you don't live in a community state and you stay with him, close all accounts, including bank accounts, that you have jointly with him. Take a financial snapshot of your finances by collecting statements from one point in time, and start keeping records of where the money is going.

If you leave your husband, it's very important  to sever all financial ties and get qualified legal counsel immediately. State laws vary considerably and you must have expert help on your side.

Best of luck, and take care of yourself and your credit!

See related: 80 percent of spouses lie about spending, Resist racking up debt to get back at cheating spouse, How to cope when spouse's secret debts come to light, Dividing credit card debt in divorce

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