Are You Responsible for Your Spouse’s Debt?

Things can be complicated in a marriage, and this includes finances in some cases. When debt enters the picture, there are often many questions that come with it. In today’s world, it is likely that at least one spouse will come to a marriage with some form of debt, from credit cards to cars to student loans. The question of who is responsible for that debt becomes a very important one to answer.


Photo by rivieramaya26 via Flickr

I will attempt to answer this question for different scenarios, but it is important to realize that I am not a law expert, nor a financial professional. Additionally, whether or not you are responsible for your spouse’s debt may depend on whether or not you are in a community property state, and may depend on other state laws. While you can get a general idea of whether or not you are responsible for your spouse’s debt from this article, it is best to get the opinion of a legal professional licensed in your state.

When I Marry My Spouse, Do I Marry His or Her Debt?

The good news is that, in most cases (community property states may be different), debt that your spouse incurred in his or her name prior to marriage is not likely to become your responsibility upon marriage, even if you combine bank accounts. In many cases (but not all) you remain separate in term of debt responsibility and credit score.

Some of the things you do, though, can make that debt your responsibility. If you decide to have your name added to a spouse’s credit card, it can connect you to the debt. Additionally, if you refinance your mortgage or a car loan in both your names, you can become responsible for debt that you may not have incurred. Also, consolidating credit cards or student loans into one loan with both your names will result in you assuming at least some of the responsibility for the debt.

What Happens to the Debt if We Divorce?

For the most part, debt incurred before the marriage stays with the person that incurred the debt — especially if that debt remained in your spouse’s name. Things get trickier if you have added your name to accounts or refinanced debt that wasn’t yours to begin with.

When you incur debt together, in your marriage, you are both usually responsible for it. You might both have to pay the debt, or there might be some arrangement. In states where community property is not practiced, it is often possible to avoid responsibility for debt that you did not benefit from. If your spouse borrowed to finance a hobby or take a vacation, you may not be responsible for it, even though it was incurred during the marriage.

One spouse may be made responsible for the debt incurred during the marriage, but the settlement during divorce might allow for that person to receive a greater share of property and assets to offset the obligation. In some cases, different debts are assigned to different partners to be responsible for. It depends on state law, and on the type of divorce settlement reached.

What Happens to Debt Upon Death?

It would be nice if someone’s debt just disappeared upon death, but this is not the way it works. If a spouse’s debt is in your name as well, you become responsible for the repayment of that debt. I co-signed on my husband’s private student loan; if he dies, that debt is my responsibility. However, for debts that your name is not on, your spouse’s estate is responsible. The obligation has to be repaid from the assets that your spouse had. This can reduce what comes to you. Many families get life insurance so that debts can be paid off if a spouse dies.

In the end, your circumstances, and the names associated with the debt, govern what happens with it. Find out what state laws apply to your situation, and do what you can to ensure that the debt is settled appropriately.

About the Author

By , on Jan 10, 2011
Miranda Marquit
Miranda is a professional personal finance journalist. She is a contributor for several personal finance web sites. Her work has been mentioned in and linked to from, USA Today, The Huffington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. She also has her own personal finance blog: Planting Money Seeds.

Leave Your Comment (18 Comments)

  1. Tiffany says:

    My ex husband and I are tide into a federal spousal consolidation loan. Upon or divorce the judge ordered that I am responsible for my 29% and he is responsible for his 71%. I know that AES doesn’t see it that way. I have continued to make my monthly payments while my ex husband has not. I would like to get married again. My fiance is a CPA who owns his own business. Is there a way to protect my fiance when we get married (i.e. his taxes and other garnishments)? Even though my ex husband is a professor at a private university and makes more than double what I make, he refuses to pay anything on the student loans. My fiance and I want to get married, however I don’t want his business or taxes to be affected. Any way to keep my fiance and his business safe from my ex husband’s irresponsibility?

    • Pinyo says:

      @Tiffany – I think you should consult an attorney.

      • Tiffany says:

        I have consulted 3 attorneys. Spent almost $30k in attorney fees dealing with this debt and custody issues because he is abusive to my son. The rules don’t apply to my ex husband and he gets away with everything!

    • Ronald says:

      I do not know the specifics, but I would think a court decree would serve the purpose. However, you should keep a record of everything (I know, that is rather tedious, but you need it for proof in court, should you have to take it that far).

      Also, be honest with your fiancĂ© about the whole thing. Don’t leave out any pertinent facts. With him being a CPA, he should know some things and would be able to help guide you. I am also in the process of getting my CPA, which I have been doing tax returns for various people for the last 20+ years. He probably also have some connections with other lawyers. It doesn’t hurt to ask him.

      One reason why I mention about the whole honesty, I didn’t like it when there were things sprung up on me with debts my wife had. We dealt with them, though one of her credits (a bank) had committed fraud against us and actually more or less forced our hands with their fraudulent actions by having us file bankruptcy, only for them to attempt to collect that same debt on us after we were discharged, but only they attempted to do it under a different name. Don’t get me wrong, we were already on the edge of possibly having to file bankruptcy, but that bank pushed us over with their fraudulent actions. As such, I will never do business with that bank for as long as I have a realistic choice about it. I actually have a list of banks I won’t do business with for one reason or another, but that particular bank top the list.

      Since that time of having to file, we have managed to do a lot better, even with the recently 2.5 years of being unemployed with another 3 months to go with unemployment until I start my new employment with a base pay being 35% higher than what my previous base pay was prior to the lay off. In that time, I will have earned not only my BBA in Accounting (earned 2 years worth in 15 months with a GPA of 3.88 on a 4.0 scale), but also my MS in Accounting this December. I have already passed 2 of the 4 CPA exams with the other 2 set to be taken in January as 3 of my current classes feeds into one of the 2 remaining CPA exams. Yet, I will be doing software development work, which is a skill I picked up on my own without being taught it. This skill, I started to acquire it back in my 7th grade as I was introduced to computers via the programming side of BASIC in October 1984, and used this skill saving the previous company over $1 million per year for a program I created and implemented within a 3 week period, which also includes my boss and myself training the operators and assistants how to use the program in that last week of the 3 week period. I also saved them money in other ways too, which some of those other ways included 5 digit figures annually.

  2. Miranda says:

    I don’t exactly know how that works, but, as long as you can show the IRS that the debt was his, before you married, I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be responsible for it (although you might be responsible for new tax debt going forward if you file jointly). However, if you decide to combine your finances, and you take on some of that debt in your name, or take it on jointly, you could become responsible. I would check with a knowledgeable attorney about your responsibility.

    You aren’t barred from filing jointly, but if your husband has a history of not paying debts, and if you are concerned about his finances dragging you down, I would keep your finances — especially on paper — as separate as possible. I would consider a married filing separately status, even though you might not end up with as many benefits. I would only file jointly if you are confident that you can pay what you BOTH owe (if he has been receiving unemployment benefits, he has to pay taxes on that income) for the previous year. Once you file jointly, you are accepting responsibility for that particular tax year.

  3. Sarah says:

    My new husband hasn’t filed taxes in the past. Am I responsible for his tax debt? He’s currently unemployed; am I barred from filing taxes as married filing jointly? There’s a huge difference in tax due from one income.

  4. Pinyo says:

    @M – I’d like to suggest that you read a bit more about this. I read in several places and I believe you’re not technically responsible for your wife’s student loan. You should tell the collector to stop harrassing you.

    I answered a similar question about debt collector calls that you could also check out.

    I hope this helps.

  5. M says:

    This article is false. Upon marrying my wife, debt collectors started harassing me. They said I was responsible for my wife’s prior overdue college loan because I was her ‘husband’.

    That is bullcrap if you ask me.

  6. Ronald Dodge says:

    I don’t know what sort of situation you may have been in or what you may have had to deal with, but that’s for you to know, and not part of any of my business. Of course, I only say that as each of our own experiences impact each of us how we view and see things.

    A portion of her debt, I ended up taking it all on. I don’t personally believe in controlling other people cause that’s not very sociable in many ways, but I do believe there must be checks and balances in place. Not only that, but after what I been through for the first 25 years of my life, I am not wanting to live literally in survival mode strictly on SSA benefits just as I did in the early 1990′s (When I was getting Child SSDI in regards to epileptic seizures).

    As for the her, I would rather just be able to release it to her, but she has to show me that she can take the full control herself. Don’t get me wrong, she has improved greatly over the years, but this sort of stuff doesn’t just happen overnight. If I could just turn it over to her knowing that she would do the right thing (Granted, may not be exactly the same way or with the same stuff, but still on the same basic guidelines), it would make things so much easier for me as I wouldn’t have to pay as much attention to certain things as much.

    Not only that, but I would rather teach and let go than to have to control everything myself. Don’t get me wrong, I want to know pretty much at all times (or whenever I ask for the information), but you get a lot more things done working as a team than you would get things done working as a star individual working against everything else.

    No one ever said life was going to be easy, but then again, I been through hard knox literally living on 2/3 of federal poverty and 4/9 of state poverty level for a period of 6 years straight through. As such, I was forced to be frugal and keep spending down to a bare minimal while I still kept going further into debt (mostly with student loans), which to this day, I am still indirectly paying for that 15 years later.

    It’s having been through this hard knox for such a long time period that forced me to look and come up with the various rules as I have. Trust me, in some ways, I wish I could just go spending like it’s nothing, but I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum in many regards. Hecks, for that matter, they say to raise a child using today’s dollar, it costs $218,000 (I even seen it on the low side of $186,000 with the stipulation this was assumed for a household with 3 or more kids) for the first 18 years of the child’s life. That means between $10,500 and $12,000 per child for the first 18 years. I wish I could have been able to spend that on my 5 girls, but we only bring into the home about $55,000 gross annually (Slightly below the area’s median income level), so don’t count on us spending $10,500 per child per year. We don’t qualify for any government help either, and if we did, I wouldn’t want it cause we would have to follow their rules including having less than $2,000 for an emergency fund to get any sort of help from them, which I currently have built up to about $13,000 (Not even close to ideal level). Most people would say one need to have a minimal of 3 to 6 months of an emergency fund built up. By this definition, we are close, but not quite there on the minimal side. However, this view is too simplistic and doesn’t take into account of different things.

    For me, an Emergency fund is consisted of 3 parts

    Part 1: One full year of *NECESSARY* Cash Outflow Demands

    Part 2: The Accumulated Depreciation on *ALL MAN-MADE* Long-Term assets. This requires the use of depreciation schedules on a realistic basis, but this also is a safeguard against having to take debt out for such assets like another car or home repairs.

    Part 3: Coverage of Sudden Losses (This is the only part that I really consider as true financial emergencies).

    One such example is when my wife and 4 of the 5 girls (My wife was pregnant with the 5th at that time) were in the minivan on their way down to Louisville, KY (1.5 hours from our home all by her choice) in September of 2006, she ended up being involved in a wreck that involved a total of 4 different semi drivers (3 regular semis and a tanker). The van suffered the least damage of all, but even it was totaled as a result of the wreck by the actions of the one semi-driver who was driving too fast and too close behind her for the road conditions, when my wife had to slam on her brakes cause of a semi driver in front of her somehow caused the rail guard from the median to kick out into the fast lane hitting a semi driver that was in front of that driver but was already headed down the hill to the road below in a bad sort of way. As the driver behind her slammed on it’s brakes, the semi was already jackknifing and the driver was steering to the right (as trained, but too little too late) first hitting the back right of the minivan flicking it into the rail guard, then into the back of a tanker in the right hand lane.

    All in all, they were all very fortunate as any other way could have very easily killed them all. As for that matter, I was also very fortunate cause it could have meant I could have either lost the family or I could have had a very crippled family with severe life lasting injuries limiting their capabilities and costing the family a very large amount for ongoing medical costs. I’m not even sure what sort of emotional tolls it may have had on me should that have happened. Despite what happened to me growing up to the point I had to be emotionless to avoid the issues (both due to the seizures taking place should any of the stress levels went out of normal range as well as due to other peoples physical abusive actions against me as I was a child, if I had shown any sort of emotions), I’m still can’t say I wouldn’t have went through some sort of significant emotional trama myself.

    Anyhow, that situation had significant sudden losses, which we only recovered the short-term impact via the court case, not the long-term impact with my wife’s neck/shoulder issue. But then I also don’t see her attempting to do any significant recovery with it either as far as using weights to help strengthen that back up. Of course, weight building would only go so far, but it would at least do some part of that recovery.

    But then maybe given what I been through growing up, forced to fight through anything and everything giving it all during pretty much ever bit of my waking hours to the point even in college, I was accused by one of my own teammates I’m too competitive, I just don’t let anything stop me. Some things may slow me down or delay me to the point I may have to take a step back, but it won’t stop me and I will go forward again, but only that much harder with a plan in place and in full use. I didn’t stand for school officials treating me like I couldn’t make it in life as a result of me having to deal with epileptic seizures (Strike 1), a learning disability primarily in language (Strike 2), and being a ward of the state (Strike 3). Other than a few minor exceptions, they more or less treated me like I couldn’t do anything, which like in baseball, 3 strikes and you are out, that’s how I was treated in school and by the guardians. As such, they allowed the older bigger kids gang up on me beating the living tar out of me and they attempted to hold me back that much further with my education. I learned their game, strategized within their rules of the game, turned those rules around they used against me, which I used right back at them and beat them at their game by becoming #1 at something useful to them. To become #1, you must not just do things and be good at it, but you must give it all and let no one stand in your way, but yet, given I had 3 life strikes against me, that was thee only way for me to get any sort of respect from them school officials.

    That’s cause one of several lessons I learned back in the 4th grade, people will be people in that people will do anything and everything they want to do for as long as the consequences of their actions aren’t great enough to deter them from such actions, even if it means they hurt others in the process.

  7. selena says:

    @ronald
    i’m afraid there is just no polite way to say this: you sound like an abusive husband who is controlling his wife by deliberately lowering her self-esteem and controlling her money. yes yes, it’s all ‘for her own benefit’, that’s the same bs excuse every manipulating spouse makes.

    the reasons for me saying this are tidbits like: *i* had a reason to overspend, my wife was just incompetent.

    you were nice enough to take on a portion of her debt? only to throw it back in her face as a constant reminder of how she is so much worse with money then you are.

  8. Ronald Dodge says:

    Louise,

    While I know you been hurt by such situation, please don’t turn this into a gender type deal. You know, ladies can steal from men just as well as men can steal from women if the other party let them. While I hate to say something of this sort with regards to my own family, but I can’t lie either. For the most part, my own mom use men for their money, and the moment the men wake up and realize it, she just dumps them and move onto the next one.

    As for my wife, she is no where near as bad as my mom, but she still has a self discipline issue (though it has improved over the years, but ever so slowly) to the point she still don’t seem to know how to save itself. As such, I still have to maintain control cause if I was to release it over to her, I don’t think the bills would all get paid as needed nor would we have the savings in place that we will eventually end up having to rely on.

    As a matter of fact, not only did I continue to deal with my own debt issues (mostly caused by lack of sufficient income while in college) and still continuing to do so, but I also ended up having to take on my wife’s debt issues (her’s mostly caused by not keeping spending within control as she treated credit as if thre wasn’t a care in the world) as she hasn’t even been working. Now I realize raising 5 girls at home is no easy thing either, but she in many respects is just the opposite as I am.

    Now there was a situation that took place early on in our marriage that dealt with one of her creditors committing fraud against us, and it was that situation that had me end the joint checking account in a heart beat. As a matter of fact, we ended up going 3 years without a checking account cause of how bad that situation was dealing with draft checks (which there is still nothing in place to stop such fraud draft checks). Even once I did get a checking account, it was only in my name, not in her name so as such creditors couldn’t legally lay such a claim as one of her creditors did fraudulently.

    Basically putting it, I said I will take care of all of our *NECESSARY* household expenses including the debt situation, but anything extra, that will have to be paid for by other means, not out of the family’s budget which is the money I earn. There was a time when I ended up having to get help from her with it due to what was taking place, and the agreement was this: If she works, she would get 20% of the net pay while the family would get the other 80% of net pay.

    Why did I say 20% for her?

    First, as for entertainment expenses, that’s to use up only between 5% (minimal) and 10% (maximum) of household budget, so as to keep such blow money spending within a controllable means. That’s cause, just as all play, no work is no good, all work and no play is no good either from a psychological stand point of view of the human being. In her case, given she would be more or less be doing double duty, I took the high end of the entertainment budget from 10% up to 20% in regards to her net pay, but also knew she would basically blow it, which most of that 20% of net pay, she did blow it. In all actuallity, while 5% to 10% of my net pay goes to the “FAMILY’S” entertainment budget, 20% of her net pay went to her entertainment spending, so she really got a lot more in that regards than the rest of the family. Note, she is not currently working, thus why the past tense, “went”.

    Therefore, as you can see, women can be just as bad about money as men.

  9. Louise Green says:

    Good article and intersting posts. I recently saw a TV drama wherein the wife mentions being responsible for her new husband’s $20,000 debt. She took it on with good humor (they were in it together! they were in love!), he seemed to have a good job. Later she discovered he was penniless con-man. This got me interested in the question supposing she did not know of the debt, he turned out to be a rat, died soon, then would she be stuck with his debt? Reading the articles here, it seems she would be stuck. Not very fair.

    I am a senior lady in a second marriage of 40 years length. Born near the Big Depression, we were brought up not to buy unless we could pay cash for the items. In marriage, we were brought up to pool all monies. But…What if spouse turned mean and verbally abusive like mine? And got greedy, wanting to grab my money? We had a joint checking account at first and he stole my money from it. He earned twice what I did! He was so smooth and sneaky and put so many stars in my eyes I didn’t know it for a year. I ended the joint account immediately. Luckily I had never put his name on my house. He was developing a strong tendency to being a bully but once I took control of my salary he reversed this trend. Respect goes to the one who has the money.

    My advice to all women is keep their money in their name. Don’t trust how he acts beforehand. Some will put on any sort of act to get the woman they want. Pay only a certain agreed-upon portion of household bills. Never co-sign a loan for his car, for furniture, for anything. Keep track of his credit report from time to time. When you have your own money, you will be in a position of strength. Your man will treat you much better because you are not weakly under his thumb. And if he doesn’t treat you with respect and total honesty, get rid of him. Get the stars out of your eyes and get real.

  10. Jacob says:

    Very useful article, as I was wondering this myself today because my current girlfriend has a large amount of credit card and student loan debt. It is interesting to know that certain things you do during marriage can make it so that the debt-free partner can assume responsibility for that debt.

  11. Ronald Dodge says:

    For us, we both had debt going into the marriage though for 2 different general reasons. For me, it was most so from the lack of sufficient income for necessary living expenses while for her, it was due to her just spending credit like it was nothing. In the end, I ended up having to assume not only my own debt, but her debt as well, though some of both of our debts were discharged via bankruptcy in November 1999. I didn’t like the idea of going through with bankruptcy, but after Wells Fargo performing fraudulent actions against me with my wife’s debt pushing us over the brinks of having to file bankruptcy, I didn’t have much of a choice as Wells Fargo committed a lot of different fraudulent actions against me with my wife’s debt including going for that same debt but only under a different company name after such debt was discharged just to attempt to get the money from us when we were already well insolvent prior to the bankruptcy. Even after the bankruptcy, we were still technically insolvent, but we couldn’t really do anything with regards to the student loans.

    As time progressed, we eventually got to the point we were able to have a credit card again, but then I still had to take full control of that as my wife still abused it. She now days is very conscientious of how she use the card as she know if she does one wrong move, I will take it away from her in a heart beat.

    Over the years, my wife has gotten better financially, but she still have a long ways to go. Last year though, for the first time, I finally felt like I made significant headway with her after having her take up the Financial Peace University course through the church by Dave Ramsey. I did take the course with her, but more so from the stand point of view that I was to be her support, be able to convert it from technical language to laymen language (which the course did a pretty good job of that itself), and point out as to why I do certain things and not other things as the course pointed out. While I didn’t have her take it to learn the technicals, I did want her to at least realize what I had been doing with our finances was the real deal, not just something made up in my mind. The fact, the course used some very real life experiences, which resonated with us as we went through many of such experiences, that was when she came to realization what I had been doing was the real deal. It was only then when I felt like I could make some real impact to our finances. Therefore, paying that $99.00 for her to go through a course actually paid off pretty big in the end. She is now going through me and such. Every now and then, she may make a minor mistake, but then which of us don’t make mistakes along the way. It’s only when it becomes either major mistakes or very repetitive mistakes is when I have issues.

    If there was to come to a divorce, and based on how other couples were treated by the court system within the state of Ohio, I would be lucky to see 10% of my net pay while the state would stick me with all of the debt except for maybe her student loans that I’m also paying on. Not only that, but the state would more than likely stick me with paying for all of the other debts (which would be my student loans and the mortgage at this point of time) with this less than 10% of net pay while she would get the more than 90% of the net pay. I know of others that had only one child and didn’t even see 25% of their net pay while be stuck to pay for all of the debt as they lived in the state of Ohio.

    While I understand judges has to do something about deadbeat parents, but the rules are so far against the non-custodian parent (Generally the father unless the mother is seen as unfit), the non-custodian parent get the shaft of the divorce case. As such, there’s even been such parents that has skipped out not only the state, but out of the nation even cause such cases were stacked too much against the non-custodian parents. As such, I don’t care for how the judicial system works with these types of cases either.

  12. Jerry says:

    Well, this is bad news for my wife because I accumulated a lot of student loan debt along the way. However, I did consolidate it and it’s only in my name now. I wouldn’t want a lot of student loan debt to lead to money issues or divorce because I know that can happen. I guess your insurance for keeping your marriage on track is to discuss your debt before going down the aisle.

  13. krantcents says:

    I was fortunate when I married, neither my wife nor I had any debt. That is not true anymore. This begs the question if it is appropriate to have a prenuptial agreement to take care of this issue. No doubt this should be addressed (discussed and resolved) prior to marriage.

  14. WOW that is a lot to think about when you decide to get married – I feel like everyone has a differing opinion on how you should combine your finances once you tie the knot. I like how you laid everything out there though that it isn’t always an issue to combine debt in the first place, but there is more to it once you divorce or pass on.

    Thanks for the information!

  15. Kris says:

    Very tough question. Part of me says if you marry, you marry the entire person, including their past. But part of me knows that is naive, and that lots of factors can account for debt like an ex-spouse. So, I guess the best answer is to discuss how you look at this before you marry, so there are no surprises.

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