Q&A: How one spouse’s bankruptcy filing affects the other spouse

Dear Liz: If one spouse files for bankruptcy, how does that affect the other spouse? What happens to the joint accounts?

Answer: How the nonfiling spouse is affected depends on whether they live in a community-property or a common-law state.

Most states are common-law states. Property and debts acquired during marriage can belong to only one spouse.

In these states, the filing spouse’s separate property and their share of any jointly owned property become part of the bankruptcy. Any property that isn’t protected under the state’s bankruptcy exemption laws can be taken and sold to pay creditors.

The bankruptcy trustee may try to partition any joint property so only the filing spouse’s share is sold, but if that’s not possible the whole property may be sold and the nonfiling spouse will be paid for his or her share. The bankruptcy erases the filing spouse’s separate debts and share of any joint debts, but the nonfiling spouse still has to pay his or her share of those joint debts.

In community-property states, property and debts acquired during marriage typically belong to both spouses, even if they’re in only one spouse’s name. So a bankruptcy filing by one spouse in a community property state can put more property at risk. (Community-property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.)

As in common-law states, a completed bankruptcy erases the filing spouse’s debts but leaves the other spouse on the hook for his or her share of any joint debts.

In community-property states, though, the nonfiling spouse can get a benefit known as a “phantom discharge.” If the filing spouse gets debts wiped out and is able to protect community property under the state’s exemption laws, then that property stays protected. As long as the couple is married, creditors won’t be able to touch it.

Bankruptcy has gotten complicated enough that you’ll want to get good, solid advice from an experienced bankruptcy attorney before you proceed with any filing. Most such attorneys offer a free or low-cost initial consultation to discuss whether it’s the right solution for your situation. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys at www.nacba.org.

Q&A: Could new job affect credit rating?

Dear Liz: I have been employed at a small business, a sole proprietorship, for 34 years. My boss is going to just shut down the business, with no plan for succession. I have a job offer from a rival firm, so I don’t plan on being out of work for very long. How will this affect my credit rating? If I apply for a loan after being employed for, say, six months at the new firm, will the short time at that job be a negative mark against me? Should I hurry to apply for a loan before the business shuts down? Would that be illegal or unethical, since I know that I won’t be there much longer?

Answer: Few people know with any certainty how long they’ll remain in their current jobs. If only those who planned to stick with their employers indefinitely were allowed to apply for credit, lenders would go out of business.

That said, a recent job change can complicate the process for getting some loans, such as a mortgage. If you’re planning to borrow the money anyway and can complete the loan process before changing jobs, you’ll likely have an easier time getting approved.

While some lenders take job stability into account, your credit scores do not. Credit scoring formulas don’t include any information about employment or income. You get and keep good scores by using credit responsibly. But part of responsible credit management is not applying for loans you don’t need, so don’t rush out to borrow money just because you can.

Q&A: Paying an incorrect bill to avoid a credit hit

Dear Liz: I was a volunteer for a research study at a local university. It required a blood draw done at the university’s hospital. A month later, I received a bill for the blood draw, which I questioned. I was told it was a mistake and that I was in no way responsible for costs associated with the research study. Because the hospital was installing a new billing system, I was told it would take a while to resolve and not to worry about any bills that would come to my house.

Now, three months later, the hospital has turned the bill over to a collections agency, with the amount due double the original cost. They have given me 30 days to pay up, or they will report the delinquency to the credit reporting agencies.

The university seems unable to fix the problem, especially now that the debt has gone to collections. Should I pay the bill to save my excellent credit rating? Or should I continue to fight the university and now the collections agency?

Answer: To avoid damage to your credit scores, sometimes the best course is to pay a disputed bill and then sue the creditor in small claims court. Since you have some time to fight back, however, you should do so.

The good news is that medical bills are usually placed with collection agencies on assignment. That means the hospital can take back the account if it’s sufficiently motivated to do so. Your task now is to make the hospital motivated — if not desperate — to help you out.

Write a letter outlining the facts as you’ve done here and send it to the head of the research study, the president of the university, the head of the university hospital, your local newspaper columnist and, if you’d like, your congressional representative. It’s outrageous that doing a good deed has put your credit at risk because of a hospital billing department’s incompetence. You need to stop dealing with front-line billing people, who obviously don’t have the power to help you, and bring your problem to the attention of people who can.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

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Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: What a poor credit score can cost you. Also in the news: The worst money moves for the new year, how to cut next year’s expenses, and tips to get tax season started off on the right foot. Tax refund

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Your job prospects could be at risk.

10 worst money moves for the new year
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Kids and Money: Advice for mastering finances in 2014
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Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: A massive customer data breach at Target. Also in the news: Six things to do with your money before the new year, combating the hidden holiday costs, and five things you probably didn’t know about identity theft.

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If you shopped at Target after Black Friday, you should check your credit report.

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Never. Pay. The. Minimum.

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Put down the wrapping paper.

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Military members are at a huge risk.