My husband ran away to another state, bought a home and opened credit cards. Am I responsible if he defaults?

Dear Quentin,

My husband bought a home in another state without my consent and moved away with his brother. I am not named on the mortgage documents for this new property. He opened his own bank account without my name on it, and opened up credit cards, again without my name on them. He left me in another state alone. What is my responsibility — if he defaults on his loans?

Left Behind

Dear Left,

That’s a tough break. I’m assuming it did not come as a complete surprise, at least I’m hoping that you were forewarned in some sense that he would do — as we say in Ireland — a “runner.” Some people love-bomb their spouses to give them what they believe they want; others leave because they don’t like confrontation and can’t deal with a one-on-one adult conversation.

The first thing you should do right here, right now, is freeze your credit. It makes sure your husband cannot take out any loans in your name. It does not appear to be his modus operandi, but it’s better to lock the door on that today rather than leave the door ajar — and later regret it. Second, you may be wise to withdraw 50% of the funds from any joint bank accounts.

The third thing you should do is contact a lawyer and start legal proceedings for a judicial separation. Isaac Newton’s first law of motion says that an object or body remains at rest, or in motion at a constant speed in a straight line, unless acted upon by a force. In other words, you need to take action. If you don’t, life will go on, but you will remain stuck.

The debt solely incurred by a spouse — if the other spouse is not listed on the credit-card or mortgage documents — is typically the responsibility of that spouse. Without a prenup, there are exceptions if the couple in question lives in a community-property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin).

“In a community-property state, most assets and debts obtained or accumulated by either spouse during the marriage are considered community property,” according to The Law Office of Ryan Besinque, a New York-based practice. “This means that both spouses have equal ownership and responsibility for these assets and debts, regardless of who obtained them.”

“When a couple in a community property state goes through a divorce, the general practice is to divide the assets equally between the spouses, although there are exceptions to this rule,” he wrote. “If one spouse passes away, the portion of community property owned by the deceased spouse usually transfers to the surviving spouse, unless there is a valid will stating otherwise.”

I don’t want to worry you. From what you say, it seems unlikely that you would be held responsible. (But there are always exceptions.) If you live in an equitable distribution state, your assets in a divorce would be divided fairly — not necessarily equally. You’re not the first spouse to be left high and dry, but the sooner you get the legal wheels turning, the better. 

Good luck in navigating this chapter of your life, and embarking on a new one.

Laws regarding the debt and assets held by married couples can vary from state to state.

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