“What exactly do divorce decrees cover, as far as liabilities for existing debts are concerned?”
Debts that were obtained in the name of both spouses before a divorce (meaning both husband and wife signed a document or application saying that they were responsible for the debts remain the obligations of both parties after a divorce, no matter what a divorce decree says. Therefore, if your ex-spouse does not pay a debt that he/she was assigned in a divorce decree, then YOU are responsible for it. Be aware:
If you are divorcing your spouse, pay special attention to credit accounts held jointly, including mortgage, home equity loans and credit cards. Refinancing (paying off the joint mortgage) is the only way to get off of the mortgage loan.
In conjunction with a divorce, ask creditors to close any joint accounts. Try to convert or reopen these in individual accounts.
A joint account means both spouses are legally responsible to the creditor for the account. This is true even if a divorce decree makes one spouse responsible to the other for paying off the joint account (since creditors are not party to this agreement).
On jointly held accounts, your credit will suffer if a former spouse handles it irresponsibly. This could happen, for example, if a former spouse makes numerous charges on a credit card and then refuses to pay.
Conni Murphy is a Senior Mortgage Consultant with Washington Mutual.