Escaping Battered Credit: A Proposal for Repairing Credit Reports Damaged by Domestic Violence

Debt and domestic violence are connected in ways not previously imagined. A new type of debt—which I have labeled “coerced debt”—is emerging from abusive relationships. Coerced debt occurs when the abuser in a violent relationship obtains credit in the victim’s name via fraud or coercion. It ranges from secretly taking out credit cards in victims’ names to coercing victims into signing loan documents to tricking victims into relinquishing their rights to the family home. As wide ranging as these tactics can be, one consequence consistently emerges: ruined credit ratings.

Coerced debt wreaks havoc on credit scores, which is particularly problematic because the use of credit reports is no longer confined to traditional lenders. Employers, landlords, and utility companies all make extensive use of credit scores when screening potential customers. Thus, a credit score that has been damaged by coerced debt can make it prohibitively difficult for victims to obtain employment, housing, or basic utilities—all of which are requirements for establishing an independent household.

In this Article, I propose amending the Fair Credit Reporting Act to allow victims of coerced debt to repair their credit reports. My proposal would enable family courts to rule on whether alleged coerced debt is, in fact, coerced. The victim could then submit the court’s certification to the credit reporting agencies, which would block the coerced debt from her credit report to the extent that the block did not unduly harm her creditors. My proposal would build a bridge between the deci-sionmakers already determining issues related to coerced debt and the credit reports that victims need to have reformed in order to move beyond the abuse.

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