Q. How long after a divorce will an ex-spouse’s bad credit stop appearing on the other’s credit report?  

A. Here’s the thing: an ex-spouse’s bad credit technically does not affect his or her former flame’s credit score.

“We all have our own credit reports,” Barry Paperno, manager of consumer operations for MyFICO.com, explains. “When you get married your credit report doesn’t merge with your spouse’s.”

Admittedly, however, things tend to get a bit more complicated once two people tie the knot. Married couples tend to open joint credit card accounts or take out a mortgage together and that credit, good or bad, belongs to both of them as long as the account remains open.

This means that should you have the unfortunate luck of sharing a credit card account with say, an unemployed shopaholic, you will be held accountable for any debts that they incur with the card you share. The same goes for any mortgage delinquencies, provided both of your names are on the contract with the bank. And getting divorced from that credit line is a whole lot harder than simply leaving your spouse.

“Divorce settlements don’t supersede the previous credit agreement,” Paperno says. He explains that, even if the court should deem your ex to be responsible for the $10,000 balance on your shared American Express account, “in the eyes of the lender, you still both owe.”

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And that means that in the eyes of FICO, the company responsible for our current credit model, you’re still a default risk and, as such, your score will remain low until the debt is reconciled and has an opportunity to age off your report. This can take anywhere from 30 days to 10 years, depending on the severity of your delinquency.

Paperno suggests that someone separating from their spouse close any joint accounts they share as soon as possible. You may also consider refinancing your house, though he admits that in the current economic climate that’s easier said than done.

The same goes for any joint accounts that have balances left over, since you won’t be able to close them until the debt has been paid. But Paperno says anyone saddled with a financially inept ex should appeal directly to their lender.

“They may be able to provide a solution, even though they are not obligated to,” he says.  

Want to know what can and cannot affect your credit score? E-mail your questions to editors@mainstreet.com!

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