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Debunking common debt myths

There are many myths and misunderstandings about debt that can make finding economic security even more daunting.  

These misunderstandings are very common among everyone, not just victim-survivors. Perpetrators of economic abuse also use these debt myths as a way to maintain control. Below are some of the most common misconceptions:

1. If I’m married, I’m responsible for my spouse’s debt  

This is not true. Perpetrators of economic abuse sometimes claim this is the case. either to make a survivor feel restricted by debt or to emotionally blackmail her into thinking she has made him responsible for her debt.  

The truth is that you do not take on someone’s debt when you marry or enter into a relationship with them, as long as the debt is in their name only. However, if you take out joint credit (such as a joint overdraft, bank loan or mortgage), then you both will be expected to repay the money. However, this is true regardless of whether you are married.  

2. A guarantor is not responsible for the debt  

Unfortunately, many women are pressured into acting as a guarantor for a debt, often taken out by a partner or even an adult son or daughter. Perpetrators might claim that it is merely a formality, and that a guarantor is not responsible actually for the debt. This is not the case. 

If you are a guarantor, this means you agree to ‘guarantee’ the debt will be repaid if the other person can’t pay it or refuses to. Being a guarantor for someone else’s loan is a big commitment because it means that if they do not pay it off, the lender will hold you responsible. If it is not paid, the lender will usually pursue the borrower first, but if this is not successful, they will then come after the guarantor. If you own a home, it could be repossessed, depending on the terms of the guarantor loan agreement. The debt may also show up on your credit file and harm you chances of getting credit in the future.  

It is common for abusers to pressure or even force victims to act as guarantors for their debts. Many abusers pressure their parents into this, as well as their partners. They may use emotional blackmail (e.g., saying ‘I really need this loan/car finance to get to work and I haven’t got any other way to get it. You have a good income and credit score! You are the only one who can help me.’). Sometimes abusers will deliberately stop making payments on a guarantor loan as a form of economic abuse. This often happens when a relationship ends.  

3. If debt letters are sent to my address, it means that I am responsible  

This is not true. Many people receive letters to their addresses for people who no longer live there, including former partners. In fact, many perpetrators deliberately use victim-survivor’s addresses, knowing that this will cause them distress and anxiety. However, you should be aware that it is a person who has a debt, not a property or address.  

Just because a debt letter is sent to your address does not mean you are responsible for it. If this happens, you can return the letter to the sender, stating that the person named is no longer at this address.  

If enforcement agents (bailiffs) visit the property to collect debt, you should inform them that the debtor does not live there. For more information on this, see our resource for dealing with bailiffs

“The debt has been written off, but I still fear the postman coming. I always wonder if it’s a letter from the bank or the bailiffs.”

4. We have a joint credit card, so we are both responsible for the money owed 

In the UK, unlike in some other countries, there is no such thing as a ‘joint credit card’. The credit card account is in the name of one person only (the ‘cardholder’) and it is that person who signs the credit agreement and is responsible for paying of money borrowed from the card.   

However, it is sometimes possible for this person to add an additional cardholder. This means the additional cardholder can use the card, potentially rack up debts without being responsible for paying them off. Victim-survivors may have been pressured to add the abuser as an additional or secondary cardholder. Survivors sometimes believe that they can’t change this situation because it is a ‘joint’ credit card, but this is not the case. If you are the primary cardholder, you can remove the perpetrator as a secondary cardholder. Likewise, if you are the secondary or additional cardholder on your ex-partner’s credit card, you are not responsible for paying off the card, even if he has told you that you are.

5. If we have joint debt, that means I am responsible for 50% of it  

This is a common misconception. In fact, if you have a joint debt (for example a joint bank loan, the overdraft for a joint bank account) you are BOTH liable for paying back 100% of the money borrowed, not just your ‘share’. If you do not pay the money back, then the creditor will pursue one or both of you for all of the money, regardless of which one of you spent it. This is what is known as being ‘jointly and severally liable’ for a debt. 

“He transferred money from the joint account to make us overdrawn, and we were both liable.”

6. I can be sent to prison for failing to pay back debt 

Failure to pay back debt is not usually a criminal offence, though a perpetrator might try to convince you that it is. Only failing to pay council tax debts (in England and Wales), criminal fines, and Child Maintenance payments can result in arrest. This is always the last resort, and usually only considered if the person is ‘refusing’ to pay the debt, rather than simply unable to. You can read more about council tax debt enforcement here

7. If someone leaves the country, the debts will eventually go away 

While it is certainly more difficult to pursue someone for debt payments overseas, it is not impossible. Some creditors have overseas branches or organisations that will continue to chase the debts for them internationally. If the perpetrator has left the country to avoid paying their share of any joint debt you have, you should seek specialist debt advice. The lender may hold you responsible for 100% of the debt, particularly if it is too challenging to pursue the perpetrator. 

Getting advice 

Mortgage advisors are generally free. If you are dealing with debt as a result of economic abuse, you may wish to speak with a debt specialist or financial advisor. A debt advisor can also help you look at your outgoings and develop a budget and payment plan, or help you challenge coerced debt.  

The Financial Support Line for Victims of Domestic Abuse 

The Financial Support Line for Victims of Domestic Abuse is run in partnership between Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) and Money Advice Plus. It offers specialist advice to people experiencing domestic abuse who are in financial difficulty.  

To contact the Financial Support Line, call or text 0808 1968845 (9am–1pm and 2pm-5pm, Mon-Fri). You can also email [email protected]. 

Advisors on the Line will always take your safety and well-being into account when giving advice. 

We have information on other organisations that can help with general money information and advice, and debt information and advice.

“I was already feeling vulnerable in my home life and worried about keeping myself and my children safe. But dealing with creditors chasing me for money amplified my anxiety of the whole world collapsing on top of me.”

Last updated March 2021

Further support 

If you are experiencing economic abuse, you are not alone. We have more information that can support you to take steps towards safety and begin to regain control of your finances.

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