Q: My husband and I have a lot of assets—but we also have a lot of credit card bills. Everyone talks about dividing assets in a divorce settlement, but there’s not much said about debt. How does that work in terms of who pays what?
A: You’re so smart to ask this question! Most people don’t realize that during divorce, dividing debt is just as important as dividing assets. Although most states handle property and debt division differently, you can expect debt under a national contract (like with Visa) to be pretty consistent. (Pssst. See our friendly Texas Family Law Code about debt and divorce for specific details).
Here are a few tips to help you get started….
- Credit card companies are blind. They don’t care if you’re divorced; they just want to get paid. Broadly put: You are responsible for whatever is in your name. If you have several joint accounts, it’s best to pay those accounts with marital assets and either remove your spouse’s name or remove your name so that there is only one owner going forward. The fees for these transactions are small compared to the headache and hassle of keeping tabs on an account you no longer control (but are on the hook for).
- The cleanest option for mortgage debt is to sell the house and split the money. If that’s not a viable option, one spouse can “buy the other out” with a buyout refinance (if you want to keep the home you would, ideally, be able to qualify for a loan on your own). This will not ever be mandated by your divorce decree (even the great state of Texas cannot make a third party lender accept you).
If a refinance cashout isn’t on the table, one of you can stay in the house while both of you remain on the mortgage. Instead of a clean break from the debt, your spouse would have a “Deed to Secure Assumption,” which can be drafted by an attorney, to provide a layer of protection for the person who isn’t living in the home. This arrangement isn’t for everyone, but it can be the easiest option in tight markets. Details of this type of deed should be discussed with your legal counsel.
- Timing matters, in terms of when the debt was incurred. If debt was incurred before the marriage, then it belongs solely to the spouse that created that debt. If incurred during the marriage, then both spouses are equally responsible. There may be special situations where debt was incurred as a result of paramour activity or “wasting” of marital assets. If that is the case, then an attorney can help you fight that battle during the pendency of your divorce.
Now is the best time to get a handle on what you owe to whom. To cover both: Run a credit report on yourself and ask your spouse to do the same. This free report gives a current and comprehensive snapshot of where you are with your debt, as well as your credit score—both will come in handy when it comes to negotiating the terms of your divorce.
In addition, we recommend calling every credit card company you have an account with to verify who is actually responsible for the account and who is just an authorized user. You want to gather all the information you can today in order to protect yourself in the future.
And don’t forget—we can help! Contact Divorce Strategies Group for a complimentary consultation to see how we can help you sort through the maze of divorce finance.