Fox Family Lawyers
Cynthia Moseley Fox
Attorney at Law
7751 Carondelet Avenue,
Suite 700
Clayton, Missouri 63105
(St. Louis)

You Could Be Stuck With A Debt Even If The Judge Ordered Your “Ex” To Pay It Off

“Art” was clearly upset about an unexpected complication from his divorce two years earlier. He had just learned that one of the major credit card companies was filing suit to force him to pay off the balance on a joint account that he and has wife had when they were married, and which he had long ago closed.


“How can they do this? Didn’t the judge order my wife to pay this? After all, most of the charges on that card were for her new business.”


Art was right about the divorce decree—the judge had assigned that debt to his former spouse, but she reneged. As the balance grew monthly with accrued interest, accompanied by demands from the card issuer for at least a minimum payment, Art ignored it all, confident that it was not his problem.


Unfortunately, it was very much his problem. He and his “ex” had both signed onto the account and according to the language of the credit agreement they committed to be “joint and severally” obligated to pay off the account. That gave the credit card company the right to collect the debt from either party.


When Art received notice that he had “one last chance”, he finally responded. Faxing them the judge’s order indicating that it was now his ex-wife’s obligation, Art was sure that their collection efforts would be redirected to her. They were not. Instead, the credit card company responded that they were not a party to the divorce agreement and would take Art to court if he did not remit forthwith.


“But, why only me? They’re not suing her at all.”


The answer was simple. Art had far deeper pockets that his “ex”. He had a strong income stream and many assets, while his ex-wife’s business was still struggling to get off the ground and most of her assets were already encumbered by other borrowings as she attempted to keep her business and life afloat. She was, as the saying goes, “judgment proof”. The card company had concluded it would be a waste of time to try and collect from her.


Was there anything I could do to keep Art from being stuck with this bill? Possibly, but only if the judge in his divorce could be convinced to be involved again. To see if that were so, we sued his former spouse for contempt of court for failing to obey the court’s order to pay off the debt.


Often, once a judge issues the final property division in a divorce, he or she is reluctant to be involved a subsequent proceeding. However, in this case, the judge set a date for hearing our motion rather than dismissing it out of hand. With the hearing date looming and the possibility that she could be found in contempt and actually spend some time in the county jail, his former mate became very interested in negotiating. In the end, the two agreed to split the debt in half and his “ex” paid her portion with funds withdrawn from her individual retirement account.


Art’s situation was somewhat unusual. In most cases, the debts are paid off, eventually, by the person they’re assigned to. And, when they are not, in an age where dual-income couples are the norm, the debt holder will usually go after both for payment. It’s not often that one spouse gets off the hook entirely as would have likely happened in Art’s situation, had the judge not entertained our motion.


Next week, I’ll discuss how Art might have been better protected in his original decree.