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To clear a credit record, contact creditors, not just reporting bureau


Q: Two years ago, at my divorce trial, the judge declared that the credit-card bills my wife ran up (in both our names) were her responsibility.

One year ago, when I got turned down for new credit, I was told the reason was large unpaid credit-card bills. I requested a copy of my credit report from the local credit bureau, and not only were those old bills unpaid, but more liabilities had been incurred since then.

I sent the credit bureau a copy of the judge's decree and asked that they correct their records.

Last week, I sent for my credit report again to see if those mistaken entries were erased, but they weren't. All those unpaid bills were still on my file.

When I asked why nothing was done, the credit bureau said it had checked the numbers with the credit-card companies and found them to be accurate, so they couldn't delete those items.

Is this legal? Is there anything I can do? I suffered in my marriage -- I don't feel I have to pay the price for my ex-wife's indiscretions two years after our divorce.

A: I commend you for contacting the credit bureau and then following up. Unfortunately, you skipped the most important step -- contacting the creditor. What the credit bureau did was legal because the creditor reports the information -- the credit bureau simply records it.

When you bring a potential error or omission to the attention of the credit-reporting people, they verify it directly with the source. If the source (the creditor) says it is correct, it stays on the credit history.

I suggest you meet with your creditors. Present the judge's findings and ask that your name be removed from the accounts. If they agree to do that, and after you have ascertained that the credit-card companies have taken your name off the past-due accounts and transferred those unpaid bills to your ex-wife's name, then -- and only then -- ask the credit bureau to reverify the status of the account with the credit-card company.

By the way, don't be surprised if the credit-card companies are reluctant to (or even refuse to) remove your name from the account, especially if both you and your ex-wife signed the original application. They may consider both of you to be liable for the debt even if a judge declared these balances to be your ex-wife's responsibility. In fact, most divorces don't involve creditors at all. Rather, the decree will "hold harmless" one party or the other. Some experts even suggest you pay off those balances and then take your ex-wife to court to collect, using the divorce decree as evidence. Personally, I think that's a risky strategy.

I recommend that divorcing couples separate their accounts immediately after the divorce (or sooner) and make sure one name is removed from each loan or credit source.

Susan Bondy founded her namesake financial services company 1980 to provide financial planning and asset management. She is a frequent guest on "Good Morning America," the "Today Show" and National Public Radio. She is the author of "How to Make Money Using Other People's Money." Write to Susan Bondy in care of The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. All letters will be treated confidentially.

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