Sunday, August 10, 2008
Protecting Credit During Marriage
Kathleen Pender's "Net Worth" column in the San Francisco Chronicle's Business section is one of my favorite columns. She frequently discusses issues like retirement plans/benefits, mortgages, credit, investments and estate planning that are directed to all of us and not just the Fortune 500 business people out there. She's great at taking complex issues and distilling the important pieces for regular people.
Her recent article "Protect Credit After 'I Do'" provides some very useful advice for couples to protect their credit scores once they are married. She dispels the myth that once you get married, your credit scores are combined, and she gives tips for couples to keep their accounts separate in order to not have one person's negative credit history affect the other person's clean credit history.
Although there are great tips in the article, my biggest concern is that the article does not tell readers that once you get married, your debts are joint because principles of community property apply to debts as well as assets. That means that even if a debt incurred during marriage is only in one person's name, both individuals are legally responsible for that debt. That comes as quite a shock to many people, particularly couples who have divergent ideas of how to manage money and debt.
The other concern I have is that someone is quoted in the article as saying that you should keep separate accounts during marriage so that "'The individual account is entirely under your control. If there is a divorce, those joint accounts could be in dispute.'"
The problem with that statement is that just because you put funds into a separate account, that does not mean those funds are not in dispute in a divorce, that they are not community assets and that the account is entirely under your control. If money that you earn during marriage (i.e., community funds) is deposited into an account solely in your name, that is a community asset and it does not matter who earned it or whose name the account is in - each person owns it 50/50. And, in a divorce, if you use, transfer or move around money in this kind of "separate" account that holds community money, you may be paying all or some of that back to your spouse since it is not technically your own separate money.
There are many things couples can do to set up their financial partnership together and to maintain control over their assets during marriage as well as in the event of a divorce. The smartest thing a couple can do is to get premarital legal and/or financial counseling to know what their rights and obligations are during marriage and in the event of divorce.