Unhappy couple © Randy Faris, Corbis

Eileen had just begun divorce proceedings and was worried about her good credit scores. The law in her state made her soon-to-be ex equally responsible for their debts, but she didn't expect him to hold up his end of the deal.

"I know that he will be required to pay HALF, however I also know that I will never get one dollar from him," Eileen wrote me in an email. "Should I pay his half to protect my credit?"

Many people learn the hard way that creditors don't care how a divorce decree divides assets and debts. If a debt was incurred in a joint account, both spouses are responsible for paying it back on time -- and both spouses' credit scores are at risk if it isn't.

You made your agreement with your creditors before the divorce, lawyers explain, and you can't force them to go along with the settlement you make later with your spouse.

You may not even know there's a problem until it's too late. Creditors don't have to notify you if your ex is late with a payment or has defaulted on a debt. The first time you hear anything is wrong may be when a collection agency calls or you get turned down for a loan.

Ideally, divorce attorneys would warn their clients about the danger and help them protect themselves from credit fallout. Unfortunately, that discussion may never happen. A couple might not use an attorney, or the lawyer might not be fully aware of the credit problems an irresponsible or vengeful ex can cause.

"How many divorce attorneys sit down with their clients and talk about how they're going to handle joint debts?" asked bankruptcy and divorce attorney Amy Boohaker of Sarasota, Fla. "They let (the clients) go off and solve that on their own."

The best approach is to shut down joint accounts and refinance any loans into the responsible person's name before a divorce is final. That's not always possible, however:

  • If you have an outstanding balance, credit card companies may not let you close the account. If the responsible party can't get a credit card in his or her own name to which you can transfer the balance, you may have to settle for freezing the account to prevent future charges.
  • The person who is supposed to pay the mortgage may not have the income, credit scores or equity to qualify for refinancing.

If a home can't be refinanced, it can be sold -- either conventionally or in a short sale, where the lender agrees to accept less than what's owed. If you want to avoid a sale -- you want your kids to be able to continue to live there, for instance -- attorneys say it's usually best to set some kind of time limit. You might agree, for example, that the house gets sold when the kids are 18 if the loan hasn't been refinanced.

Get Internet access to the loan, if possible, and monitor the payments. That way you'll be able to see if your ex is falling behind and perhaps step in before both of your credit ratings suffer.

And don't allow your name to be taken off the title if your name's still on the loan. You don't want to be responsible for the debt if you no longer own the asset.

Here's what you should be doing if a split is coming:

Get your own credit, if possible. If you don't already have one, apply for a card in your name alone and list only your income on the application, since using your soon-to-be ex's income could be considered fraud, said attorney Violet Woodhouse, co-author of "Divorce & Money: How to Make the Best Financial Decisions During Divorce." If you can't qualify for a regular card, try for a secured card.

Identify your vulnerable accounts. Your credit reports and account statements can help you track down every credit account your spouse or ex could access, either as a joint borrower or an authorized user. If you added the authorized user, you can revoke it, but you generally can't kick someone off a joint account.

Contact your creditors. Let credit card companies know you've parted ways with your spouse and explain that you want joint accounts closed (or to have your ex removed as an authorized user). Keep notes on what the company representative says about what you need to do next. If a creditor won't close the account, request that it be frozen and make it clear that you will not be responsible for any further charges as of the day you call. Follow up with a written letter reiterating that point.

Make sure the bills get paid. Divorce negotiations can drag on for months. Meanwhile, a single skipped payment can knock more than 100 points off your credit scores. Make sure accounts are paid on time, even if you have to make minimum payments on accounts that will ultimately be your spouse's responsibility.

If you're already divorced and your ex is falling behind on a joint debt, you may need to start sending in the payments yourself, or even pay the debt off entirely, to protect your credit. You may be able to recoup these payments from your ex if your divorce decree gives you any recourse in these situations. (This should be a standard feature, but if you had a bad lawyer or did it yourself, it might have been left out.)

Joan wishes she'd known all this when she divorced several years ago. Her ex agreed to pay off the couple's $20,000 in credit card debt as part of their divorce decree.

Every couple of months since then, creditors have called her because her ex has missed a payment. Despite the divorce agreement, she's still on the hook, and all the late payments have trashed her credit.

"I just assumed my responsibility ended" once the divorce was final, said Joan, a Los Angeles homemaker who asked that her last name not be used. "But it turns out that's not true."

If she decides to pay the bills herself, she has little recourse against him, since he has no property for her to put a lien against. She would have been better off taking on the debts herself, she realizes now, and getting a bigger property settlement to offset the liability.

"You're always relying on his good behavior," Joan said. "If he's not responsible, you're in a no-win situation."

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Liz Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy" (find it on Bing). Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. Join the conversation and send in your financial questions on Liz Weston's Facebook fan page.