The heightened emotion of divorce or the end of a relationship raises the possibility that one party will, out of spite, self-indulgence or neglect, damage their ex's credit. If you're ending a partnership, take these steps to help you protect your credit from an ex.
1. Consider a Fraud Alert or Credit Freeze
An ex applying for credit in your name, using your Social Security number and other personal info, would be going well beyond spitefulness into the realm of credit fraud. If you worry your ex could stoop to that, you have the right to place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit reports at the national credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax).
- A fraud alert requires lenders to verify your identity before processing any credit application they receive in your name. Placing a fraud alert on your credit report at any one of the three credit bureaus automatically applies it to all three.
- A credit freeze, or security freeze, effectively blocks new credit applications from being processed. You must contact each credit bureau separately to freeze your credit report there. If you seek a loan or another form of credit, you must lift the freeze, or "thaw" your credit before your application can be processed.
2. Seek Legal Guidance
The dissolution of a marriage or domestic union is a legal procedure, and it's wise to seek the advice of an attorney before pursuing it. That's especially true when there are issues of child custody or extensive joint assets and debts. Yet even if you and your ex are simpatico and your situation is relatively simple (no kids, little or no joint property or debt), a seasoned lawyer can help you anticipate and address potential sticking points and protect your interests in the process.
3. Remove Your Ex as an Authorized User
If you're the primary owner of a credit card account and made your partner an authorized user with a card in their own name, you are legally responsible for repaying all charges made on that account. To prevent your ex from running up charges on the account, it's important to remove your former partner as an authorized user. You don't need their permission to do this, and doing so will immediately invalidate their card.
4. Change Account Numbers
If you retain any credit cards in your own name, including those for which your former significant other was an authorized user, you can probably assume your ex has access to the card numbers and CVV security codes. Having those cards replaced will assign them new numbers so your ex won't have the opportunity to use them for purchases online or by phone.
If your ex had access to your checking account number, it might be wise to change that as well, which typically requires closing the account and opening a new one. Be sure to update your payment apps and any recipients of bills you pay via electronic check or funds transfer to avoid missed payments and late fees.
5. Change Passwords and PINs
It's common for couples to share passwords to online banking sites and the portals and apps used to pay bills and manage credit and utility accounts. If you retain any of those accounts after you've dissolved your relationship, be sure to change passwords and PINs. Change the device passwords on your computers, tablets and phones, as well, to protect general privacy and to prevent access to passwords and other credentials that may be stored on them.
6. Close Joint Accounts
Divorce cannot sever the contracts that govern joint loans and credit accounts, so as long as those accounts remain open, an ex-spouse might stop payments or max out balances.
It's best to work with counsel to try to disentangle joint accounts as part of the division of marital assets. The more cleanly and amicably this is accomplished, the better off all parties will be in the long run.
Credit Cards and Other Unsecured Debt
If you have a joint credit card or other unsecured debt such as a personal loan that includes you and your ex on the loan contract, you typically have to pay the balance of the loan in full to close the account. One option for doing so, if you and your partner have sufficient credit and income to qualify, is to both take out individual loans or balance transfer credit cards and use them to pay your respective shares of the outstanding balance on the joint account.
Mortgages, Auto Loans and Other Secured Debts
If you and your ex are co-borrowers on a secured debt such as a car loan or mortgage, removing your ex's name (or yours) from the loan almost always requires paying off the loan in full. This can be accomplished by:
- Selling the asset, using the proceeds to pay off the loan and then dividing any leftover funds between the borrowers
- Having one party refinance the loan by getting a new loan in their own name
- Arranging with your lender for one co-borrower to take over the loan without refinancing; this option is typically available on mortgages and under very rare circumstances. Consult with your lawyer or financial advisor to see if it's an option for you.
If you or your ex intend to keep your car or home (or are ordered to do so as part of a divorce agreement), it may be necessary to keep the joint loan in place and have the party who keeps the asset take over responsibility for the payments. In that case, information on payments (or non-payments), will continue to appear on both exes' credit reports until the loan is paid off.
7. Maintain Payments on Joint Debt
If circumstances make it impossible to extricate yourself from jointly held debt—for instance, if a divorce court decrees that you (or your ex) and your children should remain in a house you financed jointly—it's critical to monitor the payments on that debt to ensure they stay current.
Even if the court makes your ex responsible for those payments, it's still prudent to ensure they are kept up, because any late or missed payments—or, worse, foreclosure—will appear on your credit reports as well as your ex's.
If there is any lapse in payment because of your ex's inaction, consult your legal advisor about your options. It may make sense for you to make payments yourself if you can and to seek compensation from your ex in court. To that end, it may be wise to bolster your emergency fund to ensure you have enough extra to cover a few months' worth of any joint payments that remain in your name, even if your ex is made responsible for them in a divorce.
If maintaining payments on joint debt proves impossible, it may ultimately make sense to sell the car or house to pay off the loan.
8. Strive for Civility
"Amicable split" is an admirable goal, but relationships rarely end without at least a trace of rancor or resentment, and soon-to-be ex partners often know better than anyone how to push each other's buttons. With that in mind, do your best to avoid antagonizing your ex and to keep communications open. Focus on practical and financial concerns—including addressing debts that can damage both of your credit scores if mismanaged—to help keep matters businesslike and avoid spite and recrimination.
9. Monitor Your Credit
Along with identity thieves, fraudsters and other scammers, an ex can be a threat to your credit that can be identified early and addressed quickly with the help of automated credit monitoring. For example, Experian's free credit monitoring alerts you to activity on your credit report, including new credit applications and missed payments, so you can respond quickly to unauthorized use of your credit.
The Bottom Line
Even the most mutually agreeable breakups can stir up anger and may prompt callous or vindictive behavior, including actions that can damage one or both individuals' credit scores. You can minimize the risk of this by taking steps to separate your debts as cleanly as possible and keeping close watch on any obligations that remain held jointly. Getting your free credit report and score from Experian can help you see where you stand and detect attacks on your credit from all sources, including a disgruntled ex.