What happens to joint credit cards when you divorce?

In the jurisdiction where I practice divorce law (Utah), the law is NOT that joint debt incurred during the marriage will presumptively remain the debt of both spouses (and thus the responsibility of both parties to pay). “Importantly, our law requires only “a fair and equitable, not an equal, division of the marital debts.”” Sinclair v. Sinclair, 718 P.2d 396, 398 (Utah 1986) (per curiam). Dahl v. Dahl, 459 P.3d 276, 2015 UT 79, Supreme Court of Utah:

¶139 Under Utah Code section 30-2-5(1)(b), neither spouse is personally liable for the separate debts incurred by the other spouse during the marriage. But both spouses are responsible for family expenses. UTAH CODE § 30-2-9(1). Nevertheless, there is no fixed formula for determining the division of debts in a divorce action. We require only that the district court’s allocation of debt be based on adequate factual findings. Stonehocker v. Stonehock, 2008 UT App. 11, ¶ 46, 176 P.3d 476. And we will not disturb those findings absent an abuse of discretion. Id.

See Liston v. Liston, 269 P.3d 169, 2011 UT App 433:

¶ 10 Utah Code section 30–2–5 provides that “[n]either spouse is personally liable for the separate debts, obligations, or liabilities of the other … contracted or incurred during marriage.” Utah Code Ann. § 30–2–5(1)(b) (Supp.2011).2 However, both parties are liable for family expenses. See id. § 30–2–9(1). “Moreover, [i]n a divorce action, there is no fixed formula upon which to determine a division of debts. However, such allocation must be based upon adequate factual findings which ruling we will not disturb absent an abuse of discretion.” Stonehocker v. Stonehocker, 2008 UT App 11, ¶ 46, 176 P.3d 476 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).

“Family expenses,” even if incurred by one spouse without the other spouse’s knowledge or consent but “for the benefit of the family” is debt for which both spouses can (can, not shall) be held jointly liable, and in divorce a court could even order the spouse who did not incur such “family expenses” debt to pay it all, if there is a factually sufficient argument for doing so.

But a joint credit card account is not necessarily a “debt”. It’s an account that can (and usually is) used to incur debt. Even so, the mere fact of debt owed a joint credit card account does not mean that the debt was incurred by both spouses equally or even that it was incurred by one spouse or the other for “family expenses”.

Thus, if your spouse ran up a debt on a joint credit card account for expenses that are clearly not family expenses and are instead for exclusively or primarily for your spouse’s personal benefit, you may (may) persuade the court to order your spouse responsible to pay all or most of such debt. If the debt was incurred for the benefit of you both or for the benefit of the whole family, the court is more likely to allocate responsibility for paying the debt between both spouses, but the court is not required to do so.

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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