Women gaining equal credit status, but they must exercise it

The credit business is reporting important gains on the sexual-equality front. That's the good news. The bad news is that a lot of women aren't doing all they can to take advantage of those gains.

For the most part, discrimination in the granting of credit seems to be a thing of the past. Although the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, for instance, reports ``occasional complaints'' in this area, the problem does not seem as widespread or blatant as it once was, a spokeswoman says.

After several years of publicity and new laws, banks, department stores, and other businesses that issue credit seem to know the rules of the federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1975: Single women cannot lose their credit standing or history when they marry; alimony, maintenance, and child support must be given the same consideration as any other income; women cannot be asked about their plans regarding childbearing or child-rearing; and mortgage grantors must consider a wife's income, whether it's full or part time, when making a decision about a loan.

Also, credit records of married couples built up since the middle of 1977 are supposed to recognize the ``participation'' of the wife as well as the husband, even if she had no salary and didn't sign the checks for the bills. This way, both the husband and wife build up their own, separate credit histories.

The fairly widespread application of these rules means that credit discrimination ``is not the problem it was in the past,'' says Millicent DeMariano, director of the national credit women's group at the National Association of Credit Management. ``Everyone's been pretty well educated over the last five or 10 years.''

So if credit discrimination is becoming less of an issue, what's the problem?

The problem, Ms. DeMariano says, is that getting all the credit one deserves is not a totally passive thing: Women still have to take some steps on their own. This is particularly true of older married women.

``This is still a major problem,'' DeMariano says. ``A lot of married women don't take the time to look into these things and make sure the accounts are in both of their names.''

``I see women who are 40 or 50 or older who are widowed and have left everything in their husbands' names,'' she notes. Because credit accounts established before mid-1977 do not automatically show participation of the wife as well as the husband, when older women suddenly need credit they cannot get it, because they have no credit history. Or one may have to go through a lot of trouble to prove participation in the family's finances before the husband's passing.

All this trouble can be averted by simply amending the records to put both names on the records.

``A simple form can be filled out or, in some cases, a phone call can be made'' to add the wife's name at banks and stores where the family has credit, DeMariano says. The credit record should say something like Mortimer or Sylvia Chargit, not Mortimer and Sylvia.

In addition to this amendment, there are other ways a woman can establish her own credit record:

First, she can go to a local merchant or department store and open a charge account in her name. Then she charges a couple of small things that are easily within her ability to pay when the bills come. At some stores, she may have to have a cosigner to start. If this is the only way she can get a charge account, she should go ahead and change it to her name later, when a record of repayment has been built up.

To pay those bills, the wife should also set up a checking account in her own name, separate from the joint account she may have with her husband.

After she has charged and paid off a few purchases at local stores, she should go to a bank, thrift, or credit union and borrow a few hundred dollars. Again, the payments should easily fit within the budget, so that prompt, or even early, repayment is no burden.

Once someone has a credit record at a bank and some stores, she should be able to get one of those all-important pieces of plastic: the major bank credit card, Visa or MasterCard. Even if she doesn't plan to use it very much -- if ever -- these are important tools for shopping these days. For writing checks for purchases, for instance, many stores will insist on a driver's license (or similar photo identification) and a major charge card before they will take a check.

The next time your family needs to make a major purchase that would require a loan or installment payment anyway, such as a car, television, refrigerator, or furniture, put it in the wife's name and have the payments come out of her checking account.

Finally, if someone thinks she's being discriminated against in getting credit or if the credit grantor is less than fully cooperative in adding both names to the records, she shouldn't hesitate to complain and let the store or financial institution know she's aware of the laws and expects it to comply. If this doesn't help, she should send a letter to this effect, with a copy to the consumer affairs office of the state attorney general, or whichever state or city agency enforces fair credit laws.

If you would like a question considered for publication please send it to Moneywise, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115. No personal replies can be given. References to investments are not an endorsement or recommendation by this newspaper.

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