Credit reports are important for singles and married couples

Research shows that around 20 percent of individuals’ credit reports contain errors. Yet only about one-in-three Wisconsin adults looks at their report each year.

Federal law gives you the right to access three free credit reports each year from AnnualCreditReport.com—one each from the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You have the responsibility to look over your own credit report for mistakes and out-of-date information that should be removed, and for notifying the credit bureau of signs of identity theft.

The University of Wisconsin-Extension’s “Check Your Free Credit Report” campaign (fyi.uwex.edu/creditreport) lets you sign up for reminders to check your free credit reports and guidance on how to get and read your free reports. There are three ways to order your free credit reports: through the mail, by phone toll free, or at the official website AnnualCreditReport.com.

Married couples

Over the four years of the campaign, many people have asked UW-Extension educators how credit reports and scores work for married couples.

“Couples may be unclear about how marriage affects their credit, including why some information appears on one spouse’s credit report but not the other’s,” says Peggy Olive, UW-Extension/UW-Madison financial capability specialist.  “Just like single individuals, each married spouse has his or her own credit report and score.”

For married couples, information in one spouse’s credit report often differs from what appears in the other’s report. For example, a spouse who is not a joint account holder or an authorized user on the others spouse’s account would likely have no record of that account on his or her credit report.

On the other hand, jointly held accounts and credit cards with an authorized user likely appear on both spouses’ credit reports. Given how confusing it can be to keep track of which accounts should appear on each spouse’s report, it is helpful for couples to review their individual reports at the same time, advises Olive.

“I encourage married couples to request their credit reports at the same time, so they can look through each other’s reports together,” Olive says. “Looking at both reports at the same time is a great way for spouses to make sure the information in their reports is complete and accurate.”

When applying for joint credit such as a mortgage, a lender will likely review both spouse’s credit records. Although each has their own credit record, one spouse’s record can affect the couple’s overall ability to get a loan—and the interest rate they pay. In addition, spouses may be liable for debts incurred by the other, regardless of whether the account appears on their report.

“Although spouses have separate credit reports from one another, information that only appears in one spouse’s report affects the couple as a whole,” Olive says. “It is important to review your report regularly, even if you are not planning to apply for credit.”

Because the information in each spouse’s credit records may differ, their credit scores are likely also different. UW-Extension encourages individuals and couples to focus more on reviewing their reports than their scores, since the underlying information in reports is used to calculate scores. Unlike credit reports, credit scores are not available for free at AnnualCreditReport.com.

Free reminders

Anyone can sign up to receive an email reminder from UW-Extension three times a year on the campaign’s website at http://fyi.uwex.edu/creditreport. While you can order all three reports at the same time, the UW-Extension recommends that you view one report every four months so you can be sure that the information is up-to-date and accurate year round. More than 725 individuals have already signed up for a reminder since the 2/2, 6/6 and 10/10 campaign started in 2013.

“Ordering a free credit report is relatively easy and will take most people less than 5 minutes,” says Olive. “What’s not so easy is actually remembering to order your reports and keeping an eye on your creditworthiness throughout the year.”

In addition to email reminders, the campaign’s website provides information and links for ordering, reading and understanding your free credit reports. It also explains how long different types of information can stay on a report and steps to take to raise your credit score.

For more information on personal and family financial management, contact your local University of Wisconsin Extension office.