Can You Be Liable for Your Ex-Spouse’s Debt After A Divorce?

It is not uncommon after a divorce that an ex-spouse fails to pay one or more court-ordered debts. When this happens, can you still be required to pay off the debt even though the court ordered your ex-spouse to pay the bill?

As a general rule, you can be held responsible for your ex-spouse’s debt if your name is still on the debt. This is true even if the court ordered your ex-spouse to pay the debt. Just because a debt is not assigned to you in the divorce decree does not mean that your name is no longer on the contract with the creditor.

There are some things you can do to help in this situation. We’ll get into the specifics below.

After reading this article you will learn:

  • What actions you can take if your ex-spouse is not paying the bills.
  • How to have your ex-spouse held in contempt of court.
  • What to do if a creditor sues you for your ex-spouse’s debt.
  • How to avoid all of this.

What to Do When your Ex-Spouse Fails to Pay Court-Ordered Debts

The first thing you should do when you notice that your ex-spouse is not paying a bill is open up a communication line with your ex. While this is sometimes easier said than done, there are several good reasons to begin a conversation with your ex-spouse. We have seen several common reasons why ex-spouses do not pay court-ordered bills. Those reasons include the following:

  • Confusion on the terms of the divorce Decree. We have seen several occasions where clients were confused about the terms of the marital settlement agreement or divorce decree. If your ex-spouse is not paying bills because he doesn’t understand the divorce terms, you should have that conversation and try to clear up any confusion.
  • Your ex-spouse is facing a cash crisis. We have also seen several occasions where an ex-spouse has a significant life disruption, like a severe illness or loss of a job. This frequently leads to the inability to pay court-ordered bills. When this happens, it is best to call the creditor and explain the situation. Is it a significant life issue, like the loss of a job, or is this a one-time issue, like an emergency car repair that depleted the bank account? You may be able to explain the divorce, and the life issue and many creditors will be able to offer some assistance.

If none of this works, or your ex-spouse is simply not paying the bill out of spite, you may have to resort to legal action against your ex.

Do You have the Right to File Contempt of Court Charges if Your Ex-Spouse Refuses to Pay Court-Ordered Bills?

Your Divorce Decree should contain language that sets forth your ex-spouse’s obligation to pay any debt which has your name on it. The Divorce Decree should also state that you are “held harmless” from any of these debts and that if you are forced to repay any of these debts because your ex-spouse fails to pay, you have the right to seek reimbursement in court.

Can you have your ex-spouse held in contempt of court? (The answer is “Yes.”)

As a general rule, an ex-spouse who violates a court order can be held in contempt of court and can face civil and criminal consequences. When a marital settlement agreement is entered into the court records, it becomes a court order that both spouses must follow.

The process of obtaining a contempt of court order can be hard to understand. I’ll get into the specifics below.

Is There a Difference Between Civil Contempt vs. Criminal Contempt?

Contempt of Court in a divorce case is the finding by a judge that the ex-spouse failed to follow the court’s orders as outlined in the Divorce Decree. Any time an ex-spouse fails to follow the court’s orders, they can face a contempt of court charge.

What is Civil Contempt?

Civil contempt is often used in divorce court to force a party to follow the court’s orders. This process is designed to force your ex-spouse into acting correctly, usually by the court imposing a fine. Civil contempt is not a crime. This means that your ex-spouse cannot go to jail for violating the terms of the divorce decree. The purpose of civil contempt is to fine a party for failing to do as the court ordered.

What is Criminal Contempt?

Criminal contempt is a crime, and a person can go to jail. When criminal contempt charges are filed, you must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that your ex-spouse willfully and intentionally refused to follow the divorce decree. If your ex-spouse is found guilty of criminal contempt, they may be sentenced to jail until non-compliance is remedied.

In most Divorce Decree dispute cases, the party alleged to have violated the court order will have a reasonable excuse for not following the court’s orders. My experience has been that if your ex-spouse has any plausible reason for not paying the bill, the judge will only issue a civil contempt order. However, suppose the court finds your ex-spouse made deliberate efforts to evade paying the bill or refused to pay the bill out of spite. In that case, this often results in a court punishing the ex-spouse with criminal contempt, which may involve higher fines or jail time.

Can You be Sued for an Ex-Spouse’s Debt Once the Divorce is Final?

Can a creditor sue you if your ex-spouse doesn’t pay a debt the court ordered them to pay?

As a general rule, a creditor can sue you for your ex-spouse’s debts. Should your ex-spouse fail to pay the creditor as ordered by the court, a creditor can still sue you if your name is still on the debt, you co-signed for the debt, or you guaranteed the debt.

Here’s why – your divorce order is only binding between you and your ex-spouse, not your creditors. Your creditors will not care who is liable for a debt in the Divorce Decree. Your creditor will only care that it gets paid. So, if your ex-spouse fails to pay a debt, the creditor can still come after you for repayment.

Can You Sue Your Ex-Spouse if you Get Sued by a Creditor?

As a general rule, you can sue your ex-spouse for an unpaid debt. If your divorce decree ordered your ex-spouse to pay a debt that you are being sued for, you can countersue your ex-spouse and if you are successful, the court will enter a judgment in your favor and against your ex-spouse for the amount of the judgment.

There are a few things you should do if you get sued for a debt your ex-spouse is supposed to pay. Upon being sued, you should:

  • Contact your attorney immediately.
  • Make sure you show up for Court. Your failure to appear at the appointed court date will, more likely than not, result in a judgment being issued against you for the full amount of the debt, interest, court costs, and even the creditor’s attorney fees. (If a judgment is issued against you, they can collect the judgment by wage garnishment.
  • Please take a look at your divorce decree. The decree should contain language that explicitly sets forth your ex-spouse’s obligation to pay. The decree should also state that you are “held harmless” from any of these debts and that if you are forced to repay them because your ex-spouse fails to pay them, you can seek reimbursement through divorce court.   

It is critical that During the Divorce Proceedings, All Debts are Disclosed, and All Debt is assigned or Paid for with Marital Assets.

The best way to avoid creditor problems after a divorce is to address them during the divorce proceedings. This is part of the process that I cannot emphasize enough. Make sure all joint debts are either paid before the case is finalized or assigned to a spouse in the divorce decree.

If possible, all debts should be renegotiated with the creditors so that the debts will only be under the name of the person assigned to pay them. If a creditor will not remove your name from the debt, the debt accounts should be closed during property division. If any accounts are still in both names and the bill is paid off, make sure you call the company and have your name removed from the account. You should also request a free credit report to ensure there are no undisclosed debts.

I will be the first to admit that many of the issues in this article will not immediately come to mind when you are going through a divorce. You are more likely to be concerned about the well-being of your kids than you are about how a credit card bill will be divided in the divorce decree. While that is understandable, making sure you understand these fundamental issues can impact your case and your post-divorce life.

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Tim McDuffey is a practicing attorney in the State of Missouri. Tim is a licensed member of the Missouri Bar and Missouri Bar Association.

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