This is a question many search engine visitors have been asking. It’s one I needed to answer myself, since I wasn’t sure when I got married. Are you responsible for your spouse’s debt?
Yes. And no. It depends on when the debt was incurred and what has been done with it since.
Scenario #1: You’re like me and married someone with credit card debt, car loan, & student loans. If your spouse amassed all the debt before you were legally married, you’re not responsible for that debt. You will be responsible for any future debt.
An important note on this situation, however. There are several ways that you can take on your spouse’s pre-marriage debt:
First, you can become a joint account holder on your spouse’s card, like I did. That gives you all the benefits of their credit history even before you joined, but whatever debts are on that card will become yours as well. It won’t make you responsible for their other debts.
Second, you and/or your spouse may choose to refinance the loan (this could be a mortgage or it could be a student loan consolidation). Even if your spouse doesn’t put your name on it, this almost always counts as a fresh debt (I can’t think of a situation where it wouldn’t). So it’s just like any debts they acquire after the marriage—you’re both responsible.
Edit: Paid Twice has suggested that student loan consolidation may be an exception to this as long as you don’t consolidate the loans together. I’ll have to look into it further because the laws regarding student loans are quite complex. I’ll follow up with a post on the subject if student loans are different on this.
Scenario #2: You’ve been married for a few years (or a few months or 20 years) and you suddenly discover that after the marriage your spouse took out two mortgages on properties s/he wanted to invest in. This was done without your knowledge and your name is not on the mortgage. The bad news: you’re still responsible.
Moving On From There–Who Pays It Off?
Should you help a spouse pay off debt even if you’re not legally responsible for it? I believe that’s a matter for the two of you to work out.
Micah believes that he should be the person who primarily pays off his student loans. I’m not really sure how that works, since we combine our income but I suppose he doesn’t want me to feel responsible for them.
Personally, I’m fine with helping him pay them off since I believe that while they may not have been the best choice, they contributed to something very good. When I occasionally sit in on his lectures or hear him talking about some philosophical concept, I know he’s in exactly the right place. I’m a bit jealous.
A friend’s mother ended up with a fairly large credit card debt. Instead of having her husband pay it off for her (she was a SAHM and he could have), she got a part-time job to pay for it. I think she also appreciated the sanity time and she had generous friends who would watch her kids (and whose kids she watched at other times).
If financial infidelity was involved, it may help rebuild trust to have the “guilty” partner pay back the debt and demonstrate financial responsibility.
But it may better fit a couple’s priorities for their family to pay off the debt from their total income. The spouse who went into debt may be a SAHP or otherwise unpaid and thus not easily able to pay back the debt. The couple may want to just put this all behind them and start over.
In relationships there are few hard and fast answers. I’ve been with Micah for 6 years as of today (and married 1, or 363 days…depending which ceremony you count) and it’s taught both of us a lot about flexibility. And that other people’s answers may not work for us, but that’s ok.
Are you married to someone in debt or the owing partner? What are your feelings on the subject?