Decoupling Credit Card Debt: an FAQ

Issues concerning responsibility for credit card debt are common in Georgia divorces. It is important to protect yourself and your financial future.

Divorce and credit card debt often go hand in hand. Arguments with your spouse over credit-card use may have been among the tensions that undermined your marriage. Or perhaps you were blindsided by a bunch of bills that your spouse put on your joint card without your knowledge.

These are only a couple of examples of the close connection that credit card debt can have with divorce. In this article, we will address some of the common questions that can arise, with a focus on Georgia law.

Q: How is the division of credit card handled under Georgia law?

A: Georgia is what is known in legal parlance as an equitable distribution state. In practice, this means that both assets and debts acquired during marriage are to be divided fairly overall. In many cases, this means 50-50. But the distribution does not always have to be completely equal in a 50-50 sense, if other factors indicate otherwise.

Responsibility for credit card balances, then, is to be divided fairly, and that often means 50-50. But, as with other debts, responsibility for credit card debt does not always have to be 50-50.

Q: Could you give an example of how this kind of division could play out?

A: Sure, let's take an example from a recent Georgia Supreme Court case called Black v. Black. This was a divorce case decided in May of 2013, in which the allocation of credit card debt was one of the issues.

In Black, the judge made the wife responsible for most of the divorcing couple's substantial credit card debt. On appeal, the wife contended that this wasn't fair, in part because she had less ability to earn income than the husband.

The appeals court said that the trial judge did not err in assigning most of the credit card debt to the wife. The evidence showed that it was the wife who had incurred most of that debt in the first place. In addition, the final divorce order made the husband responsible for debt the couple owed on their house. This included debt from a second mortgage initiated by the wife.

Q: What happens if my spouse charges up one or more credit cards before our divorce is final?

A: Several points should be made here. First, if you are separating from your spouse, don't wait to cancel your joint credit cards. If you don't, you could get burned later. You could get burned because a judge could determine that the credit charges incurred by your spouse are marital debt that has to be divided equitably between you.

This does not mean that an estranged spouse has carte blanche to charge up your cards. For example, if your ex-spouse used a credit card to buy things for a new lover, the judge could assign that debt to your ex in the property settlement.

But even in this scenario, a credit card company could still come after you if the bill doesn't get paid. This is why it makes sense to be proactive about separating your finances from your ex-spouse's. It is also a wise move to discuss your situation with an attorney who is skilled in resolving divorce issues.