If you are contemplating a separation and divorce there are four things that every spouse should do before they separate:
Obtain copies of your credit report
You are entitled to a free credit report every 12 months from the three credit reporting companies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Click here to request a report from all three companies. Consider requesting a report from only one of the companies. Once you have the report, carefully review the report. If anything looks worrisome go ahead and request a report from one of the two remaining companies to see if they report the same worrisome item. Determine which accounts are held in your name and which you are a joint holder. Sometimes a spouse opens an account listing you as a joint or authorized user without your knowledge, which is why it is important to review your credit report. Be mindful of any accounts and debt for which you are the primary account holder as you are legally liable for those debts and failure to pay those debts timely will negatively impact your credit. You still have one or two free credit report requests remaining and should request another free report a few months later to see if your credit has changed.
Establish Credit Independently
If you do not have your own credit, start small and build up ideally before you separate from your spouse as you may need to rely on credit during your separation. Apply for a credit card that has a small credit limit, such as one from a local department store or financial institution. Once you have the credit card, make sure you use the credit but always pay your bills in full and on time so you can build an excellent credit history. After several months of paying on time, you can apply for another card and continue paying those bills on time as well. Eventually, you will establish excellent credit in your own name. However, don’t spend more than you can pay, otherwise you will tarnish the good credit you are trying to build.
Have your own bank account
Opening a bank account in your sole name is a good step toward establishing good credit. When you open a separate bank account, consider using a different bank from your spouse. Mistakes can be made if you continue to use the same bank, for example, accounts can be linked or statements misdirected.
Make copies of important documents
Copy your three most recent tax returns and all the documents that support the assets and liabilities that you and your spouse have, including life insurance policies. If you have a claim related to non-marital or separate property, take all the documents that support that claim with you. If there are bills that are in your name, make a copy so you can monitor the account to be sure that it gets paid in the future. Finally, if there are any documents or photos that are irreplaceable bring them with you.
For additional information on maintaining good credit read Maintaining Good Credit During and After Divorce on the Hess Family Law Blog.