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Published June 23, 2013, 11:30 PM

Money Talk: Hiding debts means you’re lying to your spouse

Q: I have three credit cards that are in my name only, plus a small loan at my credit union. My husband did not sign for any of these, nor does he know the extent of my debt, which is about $10,000. If I should die before I can get them paid off, will he be responsible for my debt?

By: Liz Weston, INFORUM

Q: I have three credit cards that are in my name only, plus a small loan at my credit union. My husband did not sign for any of these, nor does he know the extent of my debt, which is about $10,000. If I should die before I can get them paid off, will he be responsible for my debt?

A: Your debts become an obligation of your estate when you die. That means creditors will be paid out of the assets you leave behind. The extent to which creditors can make a claim on jointly owned assets – such as, say, your home – varies by state. In a community property state such as California, debts are generally considered owed by both people in a marriage, so a jointly owned home would be fair game. In other states, creditors could go after assets co-owned by your husband if the debts were incurred to benefit you both. That’s not the only reason secret debts are a bad idea. Every day you hide these debts, you’re lying to your spouse about your true financial picture, both as an individual and a couple. Even if you keep your financial accounts strictly separate, you should have a clear idea of each other’s assets and obligations so you can plan your future together.

If you're keeping mum because you're worried your spouse will get violent, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233) for advice and help.

Otherwise, it's time to come clean so that the two of you can work out a plan to pay off your debt and prevent you from incurring more.

Q: I want to see all three of my credit reports with scores and fix some things on there that could be in error. What site do you recommend to get all three with scores?

A: You have a federally mandated right to see your credit reports once a year, and you can access those reports at www.annualcreditreport.com. That is the one and only federally authorized site. There are plenty of look-alikes, so make sure you get to the right place. Each of your three reports will include links that will allow you to dispute errors.

When you access your reports, you may be offered credit scores either for a fee or as an inducement to sign up for credit monitoring. Typically, these scores are not the FICO scores that most lenders use. If the word “FICO” is not in the name of the credit score being offered, it’s not an actual FICO score.

To get your FICOs, you’ll need to go to MyFico.com. Currently, you can buy two of your three FICOs – the ones from Equifax and TransUnion – for $19.95 each. Experian has announced it will soon offer FICOs through MyFico.com as well.

Q: You recently wrote that people who start Social Security benefits before their full retirement age are locked in and can’t switch to a higher benefit later. You are indeed locked in to that reduced benefit, but by switching to a spousal benefit at age 66, for example, it is possible to receive a higher benefit. Getting correct information about this is tough. I’m a certified financial planner and I received three different answers from Social Security personnel. Search the FAQ on the ssa.gov site for “receiving full and reduced benefits.”

A: Thanks for that important clarification. The original letter referenced a technique that some married couples can use to significantly boost their overall benefit. The technique allows people to start spousal benefits – Social Security payments based on the work record of a husband or wife – while letting their own benefit grow, to be claimed later. But the option of switching from the spousal benefit to your own benefit is available only if you start spousal benefits at your own full retirement age (which is currently 66). People who start spousal benefits before full retirement age can’t later switch to their own benefit.

As you note, however, people who start with their own benefit may be able to switch to a spousal benefit later. Both their own benefit and their spousal benefit would be reduced because of the early start.

Social Security claiming strategies can be complicated. The AARP has an excellent guide at http://bit.ly/153Quvh.


Liz Weston is the author of the new book “Deal with Your Debt.” Questions may be sent to 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.

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