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.
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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.
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 blog at Miranda Marquit.
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!
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.
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.
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… Read more »
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.
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
@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… Read more »
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,… Read more »
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.
@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.
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.
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
My ex and I have consolidated student loans. He went on disability and had a portion discharged, but the court papers say he is responsible for half of what is left. He refuses to pay any and has gone so far as to sign my name on papers to defer payments. I have talked to the student loan company, until they literally hung up on me, and told them I am perfectly fine with them taking my income taxes, but nothing has happened yet. They won’t stop the interest either, so we have definetly paid back what we borrowed, but… Read more »
I had a collection agency call my work harrasing me about my husband of 1 year on a debt he had 15 years ago, is this possible? can they come after me even thou i didnt know him 15 years ago? Can they sue me? They send me a summons and i dont know what to do please need advice.
Ugh… What can anyone say about this? I was married. She went to school & I worked fulltime to pay our day to day bills. She put our housing on her student loans and then we eventually divorced. It’s been 10 years since she graduated and 8 years since we divorced. She just informed me that the loans are now in default. My current wife makes 4 times what I make. I don’t want my current wife to be liable for my ex’s school debt. How can I prevent the creditors from attacking my current wife’s money? Do I need… Read more »
I have a situation: My divorce was finalized in December. In the agreement, we had $2000 of medical bills that were unpaid, to various medical providers, incurred by my children ‘a visits. In the divorce decree, we agreed to split that debt 50/50. One of those medical providers was a dentist with a small balance, $100, which I paid. I just got a bill from that dentist, with an outstanding balance of $800. It seems my ex had a root canal and crown done 4 days before the divorce, and did not disclose this debt. My name is on the… Read more »
If you add your name to a debt, of course you are taking equal responsibility. I wonder at people who think they can add their names and have no debt for doing so. The REAL question is debts incurred during a marriage with only one or the other name ever being on it. And, since divorce settlements are often convoluted, the next real question is debt upon death. Personally, I think we live in an age when it should no longer be my responsibility for another person’s debt, married or not. If I am not responsible for a crime my… Read more »
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.