How can a divorce get messy? Dare we count the ways? The financial disentanglement alone might take many years, and some risk to your credit is present until the separation is complete. We've narrowed down the six nastiest surprises that may affect a couple's credit. The key is to be prepared for unwanted surprises that come out of divorce proceedings -- here's what you need to know.
1. Your ex might not honor court-ordered financial obligations
The fact that your spouse is ordered to pay debts does not guarantee that he (or she) will do so. If an account bears your name, alone or jointly with your ex, you are legally responsible for the debt. The contract with the creditor is not altered by the divorce decree. If your spouse fails to pay the bill, your credit will suffer. If the account goes into arrears (a legal term that means overdue debt), your credit score isn't the only thing at risk. You might also be vulnerable to lawsuits by the creditors owed money.
Have your name removed from all accounts that your spouse alone is responsible to pay. This may require that your spouse apply individually for a new account and transfer the old debt to it.
He or she may not be willing to do that, or may not qualify, so as long as your name is on a debt, keep a close eye on the payment history. Make the payments yourself if your ex is unable or unwilling to do so and you want to protect your credit.
2. Individual credit accounts are critical
Are you one of America's 10.5 million stay-at-home moms (or one of the 2 million stay-at-home dads)? Be sure you have your own credit account. If you thought you couldn't, the 2011 CARD Act made it next to impossible for non-working spouses to qualify for credit accounts on their own.
Fortunately, rules changed in 2013, and now the creditor can consider shared income (your spouse's, for example) when evaluating creditworthiness.
Here's the pitfall of having only joint accounts. If all of your credit accounts are jointly owned and you close them when the relationship ends, the result could be that you are left with no credit score at all. (Here are a few tips on how to bring up your score.)
To have a FICO score, you need:
• At least one account that has been open for at least six months
• At least one undisputed account that has been updated by the creditor in the last six months (it can be the same account)
• No mention of "deceased" on your credit file
Closed accounts will still affect your score. If they were closed in good standing, they'll remain on your credit report and factor into your score for ten years. If you satisfy the conditions above, you will continue to benefit from the age and payment history on the joint accounts until they age off.
Closed joint accounts that were in default will remain your credit report for seven years from the date the account became past due. If you satisfy the conditions for a credit score, it will reflect the negative marks until they age off your report.
If an account was closed in good standing but had late payments in the past, the late payments are removed after seven years and the account remains in your file for ten.
If you don't have accounts in your name alone, get one. Here are Credit Sesame's best recommendations for credit cards.
3. Expect to lose in divorce court
Assume the worst financial outcome (and be pleasantly surprised if things go in your favor). Sticking to a budget is an admirable goal for anyone, but it's especially important for couples whose household is about to become two. Remember, overall costs always go up after divorce, not down.
Here's a very common scenario: the breadwinning spouse is ordered to pay child and/or spousal support that amounts to a significant percentage of his (or her) income. The budget is especially tight if he supports more than one family.
Remember, court-ordered support is a financial obligation in addition to all of life's standard expenses, resulting in a greater need for money and more chances to miss a payment. This ex can't meet all of his financial obligations, and falls behind as a result. In as little as six months, late payments and account defaults absolutely destroy his credit rating, and negative credit consequences linger for years.
The strategy for overcoming this challenge is to anticipate higher expenses after divorce and keep your spending to a minimum to the extent you are able. If you have assets, consider selling or liquidating them if it will help you make a clean financial break from your ex.
4. Defaulting on court-ordered support is far worse than defaulting on other bills
All late and missed payments can hurt your credit, but falling behind on court-ordered support can be especially damaging.
While defaulting on your cell phone bill can lead to collections and credit score damage, defaulting on court-ordered support can lead to wage garnishment, property liens, asset seizures, interception of tax returns and unemployment or disability payments, passport seizure and negative credit reporting, among many other penalties.
If you are unable to keep up with court-ordered support, head straight to family court to ask for a modification before skipping any payments.
5. Without good documentation, you could lose big money
Many divorces turn nasty. Some spiteful partners deliberately rack up new debt on joint accounts or their partner's accounts in order to cause financial harm. Some will open new accounts using the partner's name and social security number.
Do you live in a community property state? You're responsible for half of the debt acquired during the marriage, including accounts in your ex's name alone and accounts you didn't know about.
Make your separation legal by filing the required paperwork where you live. You need to document the date of the split. Also, close joint accounts and open individual accounts to which only you have access. Keep records of all account activity.
A judge might decide that your spouse is liable for debts incurred after the date you separate or file for divorce, and for illicit accounts and those you were unaware of. The more complete your paper trail, the better your chances.
Build a good credit score by following good old-fashioned rules
Your credit file is yours to keep, for better or worse. If you already had bad credit before you were married and the union lasted a few years or less, you still have bad credit (although time may have allowed it to improve a bit). Items age off your credit report in the time allowed by law (seven to ten years). Neither divorce nor marriage changes that fact.
Pay all bills on time, pay off collection accounts and don't max out credit cards.
No one can protect your credit like you can. Take the initiative as soon as you are sure of the relationship's demise. Don't neglect your credit, and don't rely on casual communication with your spouse or ex for the information you need to protect your financial well-being.
This article was written by Kimberly Rotter. You can see the full story on Credit Sesame.