Ask Money

Responsible for debt

Chris Farrell Oct 27, 2009

Question: In 1999 I opened a credit card with my nanny to help her establish credit. I have never used the card so all of the charges on it are hers. Last year in July I was informed by the bank that she was late on a payment. I canceled the card. Since then she had been paying regularly until this past May. She is over 90 days late and it is now in collection. I had her fill out a form to assume financial responsibility for the card. The bank will not allow that because she has been late. Technically it is my responsibility. The total due on the card is around $10,000. What can I do so this doesn’t ruin my credit? Vivian, San Mateo, CA

Answer: I know you don’t need me to say this at the moment, but for other listeners and readers your experience is why it doesn’t pay to co-sign or open a joint account with non-family members–no matter how trustworthy. Life intervenes, and many of us fall behind on our payments for a number of reasons. (Even with family members I urge caution; there are other ways to help them out financially without taking on a legal obligation.)

Fact is, the bank and collection agency has every incentive to enforce your legal responsibility for the payments. You can’t get off the financial hook. Still, the good news is that you’ve closed the account. The potential damage is limited to the $10,000 remaining on it. Now that it’s in collection the simplest way to minimize any damage to your credit is to pay it off and then work out a payment plan with your nanny. Of course, this course of action depends on your relationship with your nanny.

Does anyone else have a suggestion?

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