The scourge of the credit card by John Bolch

Divorce|Family|October 15th 2013

In a new survey by a price comparison website, one in ten people admitted that their secret credit card spending sprees have led to them separating from their partner or getting divorced. The same number also admitted that secret credit card purchases caused arguments with their partner, and 15 per cent confessed to lying to their partner about their credit card spending.

This problem may be exacerbated by the present economic climate, but it certainly isn’t anything new. Ask any family lawyer the most common causes of relationship breakdown, and money problems will be high on their list. Spending beyond the means of the family is one type of the “unreasonable behaviour” frequently cited on divorce petitions.

Typical secret credit card spending includes those extravagant purchases that perhaps you could have afforded when you were single, but can no longer really do now that you have the responsibility of maintaining a family. The credit card (assuming it is in your sole name) is an easy way of hiding purchases, or at least hiding their full cost. I am reminded of a joke I read recently where a husband, who had spent rather too much on his beloved sports car, stated that his biggest fear was that when he died his wife would sell the car and parts for what he told her they cost!.

But what happens when your partner discovers the deceit, or when the extravagant spending adversely affects the family’s finances? Both these issues can find their way into a divorce petition.

Of course, credit cards are not always used to make extravagant purchases. Often they are used to pay for essential expenses, such as food and utility bills. In these difficult economic times, with many incomes static but outgoings continually rising, this is not unexpected. It is easy to see one person in a relationship being too ashamed to admit that they can no longer afford to pay their share of the outgoings, and turning to the credit card rather than discussing the matter with their partner. Apart from the deceit, the problem, of course, is that the amount they have to repay on the credit card increases each month and they are soon in a cycle of ever-increasing debt.

There is also the small matter of dealing with credit card debts when it comes to sorting out finances after separation or divorce. I recall from my days of practising the endless arguments over who benefitted from all of the credit card purchases – was it the husband, the wife, or the whole family? An inordinate amount of time can be spent going through old credit card statements, arguing over who should be responsible for paying them. Even if it is clear who should be responsible, it may be that the sheer amount owed will have a serious adverse effect upon the assets available for distribution between the parties, possibly even meaning that essential needs cannot be met. I remember a case I dealt with years ago where a young couple had run up unsecured debts exceeding £80,000 – it was going to take them many years to repay.

Credit cards are so easy to use: thousands of pounds available instantly, no questions asked. What could go wrong?

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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