|“After 20 years together, my husband and I have decided to divorce. We have a joint bank account and joint credit cards. When should we separate these? And when should I get my own credit card? And what about unpaid balances on joint credit cards, if one of us runs up the balance? Do both spouses have to pay, even if they aren’t together anymore?”
The initial stage of your divorce is critical, and will play a major influence on how the entire process will unfold. If issues are mishandled, your divorce can become excessively costly, prolonged, and confrontational. It can also make trying to create a settlement agreement difficult – even unworkable. It’s important to keep in mind that, in addition to getting through your divorce with your finances intact, that you lay a foundation for civilized interaction with your husband – because you’ll need to interact after the divorce is finalized.
Often, clients reach out to their lawyer when it’s really too late salvage their financial situation. That is, they go to a lawyer after their divorce is finished – and that’s a huge error.The optimal time to connect with a financial planner is as early in the divorce as possible. That’s because a financial planner helps spouses focus on their long-term financial health, and get the information they need to make smart decisions during the divorce process. Indeed, while divorce is an emotionally trying time, nobody wants their future financial health to be influenced by anger or hurt. And while it may seem “easier said than done,” the best advice is to try and approach the divorce as a business negotiation and transaction.
With respect to your specific questions about joint accounts and credit cards, you’ve brought up some key issues. It’s true that you and your husband are still connected, financially-speaking – and that creates risks. For instance, the credit card companies don’t care whether you’re separated or divorcing. They will hold you both responsible for joint credit card debt, regardless of which spouse racks up the debt.
My advice, presuming that you and your spouse are able to communicate in a reasonable manner and can work together during the divorce process, is not that you take it upon yourself to freeze or close the accounts. This can be perceived by your husband as a hostile move, and can lead to escalating conflict. Instead, the best way forward is to try and work together to lower the risk. Here are some ways to achieve this:
• Ensuring that both your and your spouse have complete, accurate and up-to-date financial records.
• If you have not established credit in your own name (i.e. it’s always been jointly with your husband), then apply for your own credit card. It’s best to do this before you close any joint accounts.
• Communicate with your spouse and try to agree to close the joint accounts for your mutual protection and to help make the divorce process simple and smooth for you both. While this is happening, try and draw up a formal written agreement that defines how each of you will use any credit (e.g. cards, lines of credit, etc.) in the short term. You should also clarify how a joint checking account should be used, and visit your bank to set things up so that both signatures are required to write any checks on that joint account.
• Open a bank account under your own name, and allocate cash assets between you and your husband (whatever is reasonably possible to do at this time).
• Freeze formal financial assets (e.g. investments) by contacting the appropriate institutions.
• Get rid of any ATM cards to joint accounts.
• Change the titles on any sizeable accounts, including your family home, to “tenants in common.”
• Take a joint inventory of your safety deposit box, and freeze any assets in there.
It’s important to keep in mind that, while doing the above should help lower your financial risk, it won’t eliminate it completely. Also, if you have any doubts that you and your husband will be able to communicate and cooperate regarding your joint financial interests, then you should give serious thought to taking swift action and separating your finances. Yes, this will probably make things more hostile between you and your husband, and could lead to conflict. However, in the overall picture, taking action now may outweigh the drawbacks.
By Josh D. Simon
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