Debt myths

There are many myths and misunderstandings about debt that can make it hard to find the right information to help you reach safety.

These misunderstandings are very common. Abusers also use these debt myths as a way to maintain control. Below are some of the most common misconceptions.

“He transferred money from the joint account to make us overdrawn, and we were both liable.”
1. If I’m married, I’m responsible for my spouse’s debt.
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This is not true. Abusers may say this is the case to try to control you.

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 whether or not you are married. 

2. A guarantor is not responsible for the debt.
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Unfortunately, many women are pressured into acting as a guarantor for a debt. This may be for debt taken out by a partner or even an adult son or daughter. Abusers might say that it is not important and that a guarantor is not actually responsible  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 or won’t pay it. Being a guarantor for someone else’s loan is a big commitment. It means that, if they do not pay it off, you will be responsible. If it is not paid, the lender will chase the borrower for the money first. If this is not successful, they will then chase the guarantor. If you own a home, it could be repossessed, depending on the terms of the contract. 

The debt may also  harm your chances of getting credit in the future. 

It is common for abusers to pressure or force victims to act as guarantors for their debts. They may use emotional blackmail (eg saying ‘I really need this car finance so I get to work. 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.
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This is not true. Many people receive letters to their addresses for people who no longer live there, including former partners. In fact, many abusers deliberately use the victim-survivor’s address, knowing that this will cause distress and anxiety. However, is a person who has a debt, not a property or address. 

If a debt letter is sent to your address, it does not necessarily mean that you are responsible for it. You can return the letter to the sender. Write on the envelope that the person named is no longer at this address. 

If bailiffs (also known as ‘enforcement agents’) visit the property to collect debt, you should tell them that the person holding the debt does not live there. For more information on this, see our information on dealing with bailiffs. 

4. We have a joint credit card, so we are both responsible for the money owed.
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In the UK, unlike 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’). That person signs the credit agreement and is responsible for paying off money spent on the card. 

However, it is sometimes possible for this person to add an additional cardholder. This means the additional cardholder can use the card. They could potentially build up debts without being responsible for paying them off. You may have been forced to add the abuser as an additional or secondary cardholder. The abuser may have told you that it is a ‘joint’ credit card, but this is not the case. If you are the primary cardholder, you can remove the abuser as a secondary cardholder.

You may be an additional cardholder on the abuser’s credit card. If this is the case, you are not responsible for paying it off, even if he has told you that you are. 

5. If we have joint debt, that means I am responsible for 50% of it.
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This is a common debt myth. In fact, if you have a joint debt, you are both responsible for paying back 100% of the money borrowed, not just your ‘share’. If you do not pay the money back, the creditor will chase one or both of you for all of the money. It doesn’t matter which one of you spent it. This is known as being ‘jointly and severally liable’ for a debt. 

6. I can be sent to prison for failing to pay back debt.
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An abuser might tell you that not paying a debt is a criminal offence. This is not usually the case. You could only be arrested if you don’t pay:  

  • council tax debts (in England and Wales) 
  • criminal fines  
  • TV licence  
  • child maintenance payments.  

This is always the last resort. It is usually only considered if the person is ‘refusing’ to pay the debt, rather than is unable to.  

7. If the borrower leaves the country, the debts will eventually go away.
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It is more difficult to chase someone for debt payments if they are overseas, but it is not impossible. Some creditors have overseas branches or organisations that will continue to chase the debts for them internationally.  

If the abuser has left the country to avoid paying their share of any joint debt you have, you should get specialist debt advice. The lender may hold you responsible for 100% of the debt, particularly if it is difficult to pursue the abuser. 

8. Creditors have to write off debt that has been coerced by an abuser.
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A specialist debt advisor may be able to support you to ask a lender for a debt write-off, depending on your circumstances. However, there is no legal obligation for a creditor to agree to a debt write-off request even if the debt has been coerced by an abuser. It is not easy to convince a lender to write off a debt that is owed to them. However, some victim-survivors have been successful by explaining the circumstances of the abuse.  

Responses to debt write-off requests vary between lenders. Some lenders may refuse while others may agree.  

We have more information on asking a lender for a debt-write off.  

9. Coerced debt won’t affect my credit score.
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This is not true. When you apply for credit, lenders will check your credit history to decide if they should approve your request. A lender will be able to view your borrowing history, including any missed payments that are recorded on your credit file. This applies to all borrowing that is in your name, including credit that you were forced by an abuser to take out or to spend.   

If an abuser has coerced you into debt, it is important to speak to a qualified debt advisor about your options and how your credit rating may be affected. If any debts are written off or paid back, this will be noted on your credit file. Missed payments will show on your file for six years and will not affect your credit score after that time.   

10. If I can’t pay back my debts, I will be declared bankrupt.
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You will not immediately be declared bankrupt if you have debts you cannot repay. Several other debt solutions are available. This includes debt management plans and pursuing debt write-offs if you have been coerced into debt. It is important to speak to a qualified debt advisor so that they can advise you on the options you have depending on your circumstances. Bankruptcy is one possible debt solution, but it can have long-lasting consequences and is not right for everyone.  

We have more information on the possible solutions to coerced debt.   

11. Bailiffs will come to my house if I can’t pay back my debts.
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In some cases, a lender might use bailiffs (also known as ‘enforcement agents’) if they haven’t been able to collect the debt themselves. This is usually a last resort if all other methods of collecting the debt have been tried.  

Bailiffs can only be used by some lenders to collect some types of debt. For example, they are very rarely used to collect mortgage or rent arrears and gas or electricity arrears.  

Bailiffs can only arrive at your property if you have first received an ‘enforcement notice’ in the post. This notice must give seven days’ notice that they plan to visit. If you have received an enforcement notice, speak to a qualified debt advisor. They can support you to contact the organisation to inform them of your circumstances. If you are considered to be a ‘vulnerable customer’, they may make alternative arrangements for collecting the debt.  

If you receive an enforcement notice addressed to the abuser, contact the company to explain that the abuser is no longer at your address. 

We have more information on dealing with bailiffs (enforcement agents). 

12. Bailiffs will break down the door if I don’t answer.
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If bailiffs do arrive at your property, they are not usually allowed to force entry to your home. Very rarely, bailiffs may be able to force entry. This may be the case if they are collecting unpaid magistrates’ court fines, tax debts or business debts. If you have consumer credit debt or council tax debt, you do not have to let the bailiffs in. You can limit contact to a conversation at the doorstep. It is very rare for bailiffs to force entry to a residential property. 

We have more information on dealing with bailiffs (enforcement agents). 

13. Bailiffs can take anything they want from my house to clear the coerced debt.
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Bailiffs (also known as ‘enforcement agents’) will usually try to arrange a payment agreement with you, where you can pay the debt in instalments. If an arrangement cannot be reached, they may come to your home and take items that can be sold to pay off the debts. 

There are strict rules about what bailiffs can take. They can never take essential items, including: 

  • clothing 
  • bedding  
  • furniture and household items that are necessary for the basic needs of you and your family, such as a cooker or microwave, a washing machine, a refrigerator, a dining table and chairs, tools, books, telephones, computers, vehicles and other items that are necessary for your job, business or education (up to a value of £1,350)  
  • items you or someone else is physically using, where taking the goods is likely to lead to a breach of the peace, eg taking jewellery that you are wearing  
  • items that belong to someone else, including those belonging to your children 
  • pets.

If bailiffs take any of these items, you can apply to court to have them returned.

Remember that you do not usually have to allow bailiffs to enter your property. You can usually limit contact to a conversation on the phone, at the doorstep or through an upstairs window.  

We have more information on dealing with bailiffs (enforcement agents). 


Getting advice 

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 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.  

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

“Dealing with creditors chasing me for money amplified my anxiety of the whole world collapsing on top of me.”

Last updated March 2023

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.