Indemnity – What It Takes to Collect

Indemnity clauses are common in divorce decrees to protect one spouse against the other spouse’s court-assigned responsibility for paying a joint debt.  “Indemnify” means to hold harmless for loss.  A short scenario will help explain the concept:

Husband and Wife have a credit card in both names with a $5K balance.  In their divorce decree, the credit card debt is assigned to Husband and Wife is indemnified against any loss from Husband’s failure to pay the credit card debt.  Pretty simple so far.

Now here’s where it gets interesting.  Husband quits paying the bill when the balance is $3K.  The credit card company seeks payment from Wife.  She refuses to pay because the “it’s not her debt” (which is a wrong belief since a decree only allocates responsibility “as between the spouses” but does not affect the creditor’s rights).  Still, Wife is outraged and sues Husband for $3K since, after all, she was indemnified against Husband’s failure to pay.  The court denies Wife’s request for indemnity.  What went wrong?

Indemnity is not a right to personal enrichment.  It is a right to be made whole from loss.  Wife was not entitled to indemnity until she proved she actually paid the bill assigned to Husband in the divorce (i.e. suffered harm or loss).  Wife cannot merely collect money from Husband based solely on his failure (and hers) to pay.

For attorneys, a good case to review is Shumate v. Shumate, 310 S.W.3d 149 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 2010, no pet.)

Author Jim Cramp is the founder and principal attorney at the Cramp Law Firm.  The Cramp Law Firm provides a spectrum of family-related legal services in the greater San Antonio Region.