What is the 'Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA)'

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) is a regulation created by the U.S. government that aims to give all legal individuals an equal opportunity to apply for loans from financial institutions and other loan granting organizations. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act states that individuals cannot be discriminated upon by factors that are not directly related to their creditworthiness. It prohibits creditors and lenders from considering a consumer’s race, color, national origin, sex, religion or marital status in deciding whether to approve their credit application. Financial institutions also cannot deny credit based on age. Nor can they deny credit because the applicant is receiving public assistance.

BREAKING DOWN 'Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA)'

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act was enacted in 1974. It is detailed in Title 15 of the United States Code.

ECOA Considerations

When a borrower applies for credit, the lender will ask about some of the personal facts prohibited for use under federal requirements. These questions are not a part of the approval analysis and are only asked to help prevent discrimination. Thus, they are optional and not required. The only accepted factors that can be used to determine whether or not an individual is approved for a loan are relevant financially related pieces of information such as one's credit score, income and existing debt load.

Another aspect of the ECOA allows each spouse in a marriage to have his or her own credit history in his or her own name. That being said, if a borrower has any joint accounts with their spouse, these accounts will appear on both credit reports, so a spouse’s financial behavior can still have a positive or negative impact on an individual borrower’s credit score.

While the ECOA prohibits lenders from basing their decisions on marital status, some loans, such as mortgages, might require a borrower to disclose that they are making required alimony or child support payments. Also, if a borrower receives child support or alimony and it represents a significant source of income, they might need to disclose it in order to qualify for a loan. A borrower could be denied a loan if, for example, their child support payments combined with their other financial obligations mean that they don’t have enough money to repay the loan as required. However, a borrower cannot be denied a loan simply because they are divorced.

ECOA Penalties

Organizations found in violation of the ECOA could potentially face class-action suits. If found guilty, the offending organization could have to pay out punitive damages totaling up to the lesser of $500,000 or 1% of the creditor's net worth.

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