Sadly many times personal credit is the collateral damage resulting from a divorce. It’s not uncommon for one spouse to leave financial matters to their wife or husband. In these cases, when the divorce hits, there is often disbelief as to the state of their personal credit. Credit before and after the divorce is a very serious matter. As such, I discussed the topic with Elizabeth Karwowski. Elizabeth is credit coach and CEO of Get Credit Healthy, a consumer advocate organization helping individuals get back on the right path to credit health.
TBK: While married, what are some things individuals should do in order to protect their own credit?
KARWOWSKI: First and foremost review an annual credit report review is a must. A credit report is a record compiled by a consumer reporting agency (CRA). There three CRAs (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax) and they do not always have the same information. Under federal law, you’re entitled to request a free credit report from each of the CRAs once every 12 months. You can obtain a report at www.annualcreditreport.com. Secondly, always keep tabs on joint accounts—don’t leave it to chance. Ask lenders to send copies of all joint account statements, even if your spouse is responsible for making the payments.
TBK: If someone anticipates a divorce, what actions should they take in order to safeguard their credit moving forward?
KARWOWSKI: If you are not aware of your current credit situation, find out. First understand all joint debt by getting a credit report. If your name is on the note, creditors and lenders don’t care, and you are responsible for the debt, along with your spouse. If possible, move quickly to close out all joint credit card accounts. Take control and make the payments yourself to ensure it gets done. In this way, it will be one less contentious matter during the divorce.
TBK: What are typical credit-related issues people need to deal with once a divorce is finalized?
KARWOWSKI: A divorce decree does not change the contracts in place with your lenders. A settlement agreement may be good for the courts but not your credit, should your former spouse not pay joint debts stipulated in the agreement. Divorce is traumatic enough even when financial issues don’t come into play. However, very often the party who considers themselves “the victim of the divorce” will pile up joint credit card debt attempting to “hurt” their former spouse. In reality, this practice hurts both parties. High balances and unpaid or late payments on joint accounts are registered under each individual’s credit history.
TBK: After the divorce, what steps should individuals take in order to repair their credit and/or establish their own credit identity?
KARWOWSKI: There are several things to do: 1) Pay your bills on time; 2) Keep credit cards balances low (under 1/3 of the credit limit); 3) Pay off debt rather than opening and moving balances between credit cards; 4) If you have no credit in your name, starting with a secured credit card. And of course, continue to monitor your credit report on an annual basis. As for things not to do: 1) Do not max your credit cards; 2) Make all credit card payments on time; 3) Do not pull your credit report multiple times within a short period. If you are diligent in your efforts, you can improve or maintain your credit score. Higher scores, those above 680 on a scale of 300 to 850, generally are good for potential borrowers.