Whether in a metropolis or a small town, many newspapers nowadays feature sections for people to write to and seek help from a consumer advocate in regards to their disputes with businesses and corporations. As one example, the Chicago-Sun Times runs "The Fixer" section several times a week in which its consumer advocate helps people get their disputes with companies resolved. Most often, these disputes revolve around questionable bills and charges.
With that in mind, the rival Chicago Tribune recently detailed an interesting complaint from a consumer who received a bill from Carson Pirie Scott for her ex-husband who died several years ago.
Pauline Killian got a divorce from her husband Thomas more than two years before he died on June 10, 2004. Some three months after her ex-husband's death, Pauline Killian received a $1,483.30 bill from Carson Pirie Scott.
Pauline Killian told the department store that the debt was not hers but rather that of her ex-husband. She let the store know that her ex-husband's account was not in her name, even though she was unsure whether the late Thomas Killian had written her name down somewhere. She asked the company to show her documentation where she had signed up for an account with the department store.
Pauline Killian even sent copies of her divorce decree and her ex-husband's death certificate to Carson Pirie Scott; yet the bills kept coming. Carson's eventually enlisted the help of a collection agency, which aggressively pursued payment of the bill by constantly calling Killian's cell phone number.
Frustrated and upset by the entire process, Killian emailed the Tribune's "Problem Solver" Jon Yates, who quickly began working on the matter.
Yates placed a call to Bon-Ton Stores Inc., which owns Carson Pirie Scott, and talked to spokeswoman Mary Kerr about the matter. Kerr called the bank that oversees Carson's credit cards, and an HSBC bank representative later got in touch with Killian to tell her that the situation had been settled.
Kerr elaborated in the story that Pauline Killian's name was taken off the account, the balance written off, and the updated information sent to the credit bureau. Kerr could not explain why the bill was attached to Pauline Killian. She did note that the bill was attached to Pauline Killian three years ago when Carson's was still owned by Saks Inc.
While expressing happiness that she was not being held accountable for her ex-husband's debt, Pauline Killian still expressed dissatisfaction with the entire collections process. She explained how Carson's demanded that she pay the bill for three years and then added that it's no wonder why regular people feel like they have no recourse at times.
Ultimately, this situation teaches an important lesson about the division of marital debts during divorce, which can be a confusing subject at times. If Pauline Killian's name was actually never on the account as she vehemently suggested, then Carson Pirie Scott had no right to pursue payment from her as she was not liable for the bill.
However, let's assume that the couple had a joint account at Carson Pirie Scott and that the divorce court ordered Thomas Killian to pay it. If Thomas Killian refused to pay the bill, Pauline would still be held responsible, regardless of whether he was alive or dead, as the couple had a joint account together. In this hypothetical case, Carson's could sue Pauline Killian for the money, and her only recourse would have been to try and get the money from her ex.
In reality, this wouldn't have been a possibility as the couple did not have a joint account to begin with and Thomas Killian had passed away. In other words, it was never Pauline Killian's debt to begin with; however, this is an often-misunderstood issue in the division of marital debts during divorce. The divorce court has no power to alter obligations the couple-or either spouse-has to parties outside the marriage.