The answer to this can vary from state to state, but generally if the debts were acquired jointly, even if the divorce decree requires him or her to pay them, the creditors are not bound by the decree. This is because they are not a party to the divorce lawsuit. Their hands cannot properly be tied in terms of who they recover against. The best thing is to have him or her pay any debts acquired during the marriage on the date you are divorced. If this is not possible, the next best thing is to have a well-drafted divorce decree that requires your ex-spouse to hold you harmless and to indemnify you for any such expenses in the event the creditor comes after you, and to allow you to then bring your ex into the case as a third-party defendant. The decree should state that he or she also is responsible for any divorce attorney’s fees you have to spend in dealing with this problem. Despite all this, in the event a creditor does come after you, you can go to court and ask that he or she be held in contempt for failing to make the payments. You can also cooperate with the creditor by providing information as to income or assets of your ex, so that they go against your ex instead of you. Generally speaking, if the debt was only acquired in your ex-spouse’s name, the creditor will not be able to go after you for payment. However, some states have family expense statutes that might allow that to take place. Your divorce lawyer should be able to advise you about this. You should also make sure that any joint credit cards be properly cancelled.
Paul L. Feinstein, a Chicago practitioner with over four decades of experience, practices family law with an emphasis on divorce litigation, consulting, and appeals. Paul is often hired by trial lawyers to handle appeals and to assist them with determining legal strategies and preserving a sufficient record at trial. He has belonged to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers since 1991 and the Appellate Lawyers Association since 2010. He can be reached at (312) 346-6392. View his Divorce Magazine profile.