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Are You Responsible for Husband or Wife’s Debt?

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.

Whatever your spouse does financially while you’re married, you’re responsible for it too. It sucks. At least it does if your spouse has bad judgement or cheats on you financially.

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?


{ 2 trackbacks }

Weekend Roundup - This is going to be quick edition | beingfrugal.net
July 5, 2008 at 12:24 pm
husbands and wives - debts, taxes and responsibility | plonkee money
July 8, 2008 at 9:32 am

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam July 5, 2008 at 11:30 am

I am getting married in July of 2009. I have quite a bit of credit card debt because I put myself through graduate school. I do not want my soon to be wife to have to worry about the debt so I want to keep it separate. It was my choice to go to school and take on the debt so it should be my burden to pay it off. She has wanted to get on the account with me but I told her no for that specific reason.

Adam July 5, 2008 at 11:36 am

After the marriage, if the one spouse takes out a mortgage but claims to be single on the application, the other spouse is not liable for the debt. The creditor knowingly gave credit to the other spouse under the assumption that they were not married.

Nicole July 5, 2008 at 12:33 pm

I once dated a guy who was $10,000K in credit card debt. It made me never want to combine our finances, which made me wonder whether I would want to combine other things as well. I think the key is to look for signs the person is irresponsible with money before getting married.

hank July 5, 2008 at 12:46 pm

My wife had a pretty good chunk of credit card debt when I met her – 6 cards maxed out at about 20k total – I was happy to help.

Honestly, I’d think that if you’re married and DON’T help out if you can you may be straining the relationship a bit; but to each their own I reckon! :) Good article.

Emily July 5, 2008 at 1:45 pm

When I got married 8 years ago, I had $10K in cc debt because I was foolish with money. I paid more than half of it off by working 2 jobs and then with $4K to go, my husband got a side job painting someone’s house for $4K to pay the rest off. For us, it was MY debt because I had done the spending and created the problem. I didn’t want him to help and I think he resented that I had been so silly with money and didn’t want to help for a long time. Then he saw I was serious about paying it off so he helped me get rid of it. Our finances have changed so much since we got married. We’ve tried joint, separate, both working, one working, etc… and I think we’ve finally settled into a place that everything is ours together no matter who spends it, but that came with growing up and becoming more responsible all around when it comes to spending and saving. It would’ve been easier back then if we’d been on the same page and felt united about finances like we do today.

Frugal Vet Tech July 5, 2008 at 2:17 pm

Now that we’re married, we view all the debt as “our” debt. Paying it down is a joint effort. We still refer to it as “Husband’s student loan” or “Wife’s credit card” simply to identify which debt we’re talking about, but getting it paid off is a joint effort. All our money goes in the same account anyway, and, at least for us, trying to figure out how much of whose paycheck is going to what debt is way too much hassle. Any debt repayment money over the minimum amounts goes to the highest-interest amount first. When we got married, DH had more debt than I did, but they may have changed now that I’ve been in school a year. Really, though, it doesn’t matter who has more. It all needs to get paid off.

Vanessa July 5, 2008 at 2:58 pm

Honestly, when my husband and I got married he came into the marriage with debt I came into it with none. We were married young, however he is 4 years older than me.

We both pay off his debt and I have debt of my own as well (car loan). We work together at it, instead of seperating it and saying ‘you have to pay this and ill pay this’.

Stephanie July 5, 2008 at 3:17 pm

Well, I’m nowhere near getting married, but I feel like I’d want to take care of my student loan debt without a future husband’s help. I guess I kind of want to keep our money separate, but I know that’s not really a good idea…maybe this just shows that I’m not ready for marriage!

Julie July 5, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Although I’m nowhere near getting married, I do think about this a lot. I have about $14k in student loans, plus the mortgage on my condo, so I’m sure that I’d be the one with the most debt! I think that right now I’m in a place where I would want to pay it off myself and think of the condo as *mine*. I’m obviously not ready for all of the sharing that comes with marriage!! :-)

Aaron July 5, 2008 at 4:47 pm

I am married to a spouse with debt. I myself have debt also. Like frugal vet tech, ours is labeled just so we know what we are currently snowballing toward. DW CC1, DH CC1, DW CC2, DH Car, DW Car, etc.

The source of these debts don’t matter, as long as we are both on the same page and the same track to eliminating them. It would be nice if since the CCs were hidden from me for quite some time that I would not be responsible for them if something happened to our wedded bliss. However that is irrelevant as nothing will happen. Nice post!

MillionDollarJourney July 5, 2008 at 4:49 pm

Great article and thanks for the link Mrs. M!

paidtwice July 5, 2008 at 5:09 pm

We treat all of our debt as joint debt, even when it’s not. Including our credit card debt when we had it. I’m honestly not sure at this point how much of it was his and how much was mine before we moved it all to one card and paid it off.

To each whatever works for them, though.

i think there is a factual error in the article – I do not think that student loan debt is joint unless you consolidate your loans with your spouse’s loans (which you can do). I consolidated my loans after my spouse and I were married and I don’t think he is liable for them – in fact I asked that directly when i was going through the process and the person who talked to me said only I was liable.

I could be wrong, of course. But it was actually the very reason we didn’t consolidate our loans together into one – if one of us died then we wouldn’t have to pay those loans.

Hopefully for us all that becomes moot sooner rather than later :)

Lori E. July 5, 2008 at 5:19 pm

I have about $12K in student loans, half of which are at a fairly high interest rate. My husband and I have combined our money, and one of our goals is paying off those loans early. Doing so will save us between $5K-6K in interest. My husband would much rather help me pay them back early and use the savings for something else than wait the eternity it would take me to pay them myself and pay the full amount.

Mrs Micah's Mom July 5, 2008 at 10:22 pm

I am relieved that if Micah should die–which God forbid!–you would not be liable for his school loans. I think Micah is right to regard himself as primarily responsible for paying off the loans, but I hope he will accept your help now in order to save interest, a point Lori E. brings up. You both need to continue to look at what is best for the Mr-Mrs. Micah unit, not who incurred what debt.

Zhu July 6, 2008 at 1:20 am

No debt here, but we keep separate accounts (we started off like that and since we don’t have a mortgage or kids yet, we find it easier).

I guess the key is to talk abut finances, debt or no debts. I can see both point (to help pay out a spouse’s debt… or not) but it’s important not to cheat.

Great article!

donna jean July 6, 2008 at 8:45 am

When the partner and I got married, or when we started talking about it, we both had $30K each in debt. Mine was student loans and his was on credit cards. He paid down a lot right before we wed, but it was still a pretty high balance. My student loans are on the slow repayment plan and I’m not in a hurry to deal with them. :)

For me, it’s now a debt that we both share and it doesn’t really matter if it is his or mine. It impacts our finances just the same and we take whatever steps we can to reduce it. To me, previous debt only matters if a marriage ends and we’re both pretty committed and confident that isn’t anywhere in our future, so it’s just another bill that we have to take care of together.

Cath Lawson July 6, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Mrs M – I think the best advice to anyone who’s husband runs up a lot of debt without their knowledge is to seperate from them – then you can’t be held responsible if your name is not on the debt. Unless they wanted to stay married to them of course.

Alyssa @ Keeping the Kingdom First July 6, 2008 at 5:01 pm

This is definitely something worth discussing before marriage. When I got married in 2004, my husband had much more debt than I even realized. Good thing I love him so much!

We paid it all off together. We share everything in our life, and believe we make a great team.

Slinky July 7, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Not married yet, but engaged. We keep our finances completely separate and will continue to after marriage. They’re my student loans and it’s his credit card debt. That said, I know what he owes on his debt, and the contents of his 401k plan. He knows how much I owe in student loans. I don’t feel responsible for his stupid money mistakes, and he shouldn’t feel responsible for my education. On the other hand, if someone’s short on cash or needs a short term loan, it’s not a problem. I like to say we’re separate, but supportive. :)

plonkee July 8, 2008 at 8:46 am

I actually wonder what the legal standing is in the UK. It may well be different (we don’t have joint tax liability for example). I must look this up and (of course) write about it.

Oh yeah, Micah should feel responsible for the debt because he ran it up and he’s a good person, and you should feel inclined to pay it off too because otherwise it’ll take forever to do, and you’re a good person too.

Kelly July 8, 2008 at 11:26 am

My husband and I have frequently tackled this subject over the last 2 years. He came into the marriage with $40k in student loans and $8k in credit cards; I was in the black. He very much wanted to pay off his own debts; he believes he incurred them so he should pay them off.

My feelings on this were quite the opposite; I was marrying him and his past including his debts and we’d be working on them together from then on. I also pointed out that it wouldn’t be fair in the marriage if we lived at different status levels (me with a good amount of disposable income, and him eating PB&J every day).

It took months of talking about it and working it out, but we decided to set financial goals together. We re-financed his credit card debt into my name at 0% interest (knowing that meant it was now my debt) and moved my monthly “savings” money over to credit card & then student loan payments.

Why was I willing to take on his debt? Well, first, because I married himand I think you both need to be on equal footing in the marriage. Second, he’d incurred all of this debt going to school as reasonably as possible. There were no spring break trips to Cancun or thousands of dollars in clothes; this was books and basic living expenses. I’d been lucky enough to have help from my family for those expenses; he just wasn’t as lucky. And finally, because he lived frugally. He wasn’t taking on new debt and lived well below his means.

So how did it all work out? In the last 2 years we’ve paid off $46k in debt (credit cards, student loans, and 2 car payments). In 14 months we will be debt free other than our mortgage! Tackling debt has made our marriage stronger because we have worked together to set goals and achieve them.

mrsmicah July 8, 2008 at 8:39 pm

Great point, Kelly. When you marry someone it really is the whole package. Including annoying tics and debt. I don’t mind Micah seeing his money as going more to the debt and us as living off mine if he wants to. But like you, I don’t want us living on different status levels.

ldub August 13, 2008 at 10:44 am

just stumbled on this post, but it really was interesting and informative! in my (unmarried) house, the general feeling is that our debts are our own, UNTIL one of us has paid off all of our debt. it looks like i will finish first, at which point i’ll simply move my “snowball” over to his student loans (he’s got a super-wrinkly brain to show for his education and i would pay to hear his awesome vocabulary any day!). once we’re done with those, it’ll just head to further our savings. i guess, since we’re both focused on finishing off our debt, the status quo has worked well as a system, but now we’ll adjust when one of us goes “back in black.”

i think it’s sort of like the commenter above; it would be silly for us to ever live at different lifestyle levels! why not pitch in on “our” debt?

as for if we split up, then i know that i willingly paid toward his debt and it’s just a past expense. i sure hope that never happens, but it’s on me to know that he doesn’t “owe” me anything if i help with his expenses, any more than i’d owe him for the mortgage that’s under his name.

Madraida November 30, 2008 at 12:50 pm

I do think that people who marry for love do not enter into marriage with separation in mind. Having said, I also think it’s foolish not to learn from the mistakes that other people make. I cannot foresee the future. I cannot tell if, sometime in the future, I or my husband will become addicted to gambling, alcohol, men/women, shopping, etc. This is why I think that couples should have joint funds as well as individual funds.

Our financial arrangement is like this:

1. We determined our total household expenses (THE). THE = living expenses + joint savings. Living expenses includes money set aside for things that are not daily necessities such as vacations, medical emergencies, magazine subcriptions, etc.

2. If THE = X, then we determine how much each would contribute to the joint coffers based on how much each is earning. Let’s say I earn more. A %age distribution could be my spouse contributing 35% of the THE and me contributing 65%.

3. What’s left of our salaries, after those contributions are paid, go to our individual accounts. Those individual accounts are for each person’s non-communal expenses. I use it when I want to buy him gifts, splurge on clothes for me, etc., etc. Each spouse also uses their own individual accounts to pay for debts incurred before the marriage. If one spouse wants to help the other pay off the other spouse’s debt, then that spouse can transfer funds from his/her individual account to the other spouse’s individual account. Each spouse can also choose to transfer funds from their individual accounts to the joint funds.

I contribute to paying my spouse’s student loans. I wouldn’t feel obliged to contribute to paying someone’s else’s gambling debts.

I like this arrangement because it makes sure there’s always a backup in case one of the spouses goes “bad.” I’m sure some would think “How could you have so little faith? How could you not know your husband/wife?” I’ve worked with enough battered women as a volunteer that I know it’s not always possible to know when a spouse is already addicted to some vice. Keeping individual accounts assures that a family doesn’t go hungry when one of the spouses empties the joint funds.

Emily October 27, 2009 at 3:15 pm

Hi my name is Emily. Ive been married for 7 months now and I was wondering my husband had electric through progress energy and I didn’t even know him then. Well for the past 7 months they have called me every single day wanting me to pay the bill. Now it is on my cerdit as well on my husbands how do I go about getting that off my credit.

Meg October 28, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Emily,

How did it get on your credit in the first place, do you know?

Sadmon November 5, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Hi. I married my husband in the beginning 2008 after 2 years of dating. He told me he had debt soon after he met. He lost €30,000 on company shares. He took out a 5 years loan to pay for those shares.

In November 2008 I found out that he had amassed €55,000 worth of debt in total (the rest was credit card debt and over draft). He had been missing payments since June of 2008. I used my savings and the wedding money to pay off €8000 of credit card debt. My husband had taken out a loan for the rest of the credit card debt. I took on the burden of all the bills and groceries so he could work on his overdraft and make his loan payments. No he has lost his job and I am paying off his debts. I am very depressed at the moment because my husband does not seem to appreciate that sacrifices I have made to help him over the past year. He won’t even let me use his computer or laptop even though I am paying off the loan he took out for the laptop. This summer, I found out that he only took out the 5 year loan for the €30,000 in 2007 after I met him. So we are two and a half years away from paying his debt off instead of one year. I am very angry with my husband at the moment. I have invested so much of my time and energy into getting rid of this debt. I can’t afford to pay them for much longer and my husband is had a over-draft again before he lost his job. I don’t understand where his money went. He earned much more than me. We don’t even have a house. The only reason I am still helping my husband now is because I fear for my sons future financial security and well being.

Meg November 5, 2009 at 6:04 pm

@Sadmon

If you want to save your marriage, it’s going to take a lot of work on both sides. PLEASE find a good, good couples counselor. Go alone if you have to. In fact, go even if you don’t want to save this marriage because you need to figure out how you got here in the first place so it’ll never, ever happen again. (Sad to say, but I’ve seen women fall again and again for guys like that who use them.)

But also, reconsider if enabling your husband is really going to help your son’s financial security. Your husband is bleeding you dry and you need to be there for your son. It sounds like you need to protect what assets you have that remain, even if that means that your husband has to suffer some consequences for his actions. And I’d definitely reconsidering paying off his computer — and other things — if he’s going to be such an unappreciative jerk.

Sadmon November 5, 2009 at 6:25 pm

I am not planning on giving up on my marriage. He was very emotionally supportive before his debt spiraled out of control. I have just hit a wall. I have contacted a local debt advice agency and I have also contacted a relationship counselor. Just wish my husband would take on some of this burden.

Matthew November 9, 2009 at 7:07 pm

10K, 12K, 20K…It’s a lot of money but is still chump change compared to what I experienced with my girlfriend. Imagine a lifetime debt that 2 people making “good” money could never pay off! I mean never! If the debt is like you all say, stick it out! That’s what married couples do! So long as you want to be in the marriage!
Do not take on any joint debt with anyone in deep debt. Mr. lovie dovie nice guy will be screwed for a long time!

nathan December 14, 2009 at 7:49 pm

am i responsable for my wifes credit card debt if i have no control on the accounts my name is not on the cards

no love in michigan February 23, 2010 at 1:58 am

Hi, I have amassed debt even more so since I was laid off in December 2008. My spouse did not support me when this happened and pressured me to pursure a high paying career that I had no experience in. I worked hard selling things we owned and earned almost 4k. I had to pay medical bills and over 1k in fees for our rental home, but he thinks I wasted that money. We had debt before I was laid off and and it just keeps getting worse. I started working again in July 2009 and now I am working three part time jobs and still selling whatever I can, but it’s not enough. I have 3 children and they see all that happens. Daddy is drinking more and being verbally abusive and sometimes even a little physical. I want a chance to try to fix the wrong that I did, but he keeps rubbing my face in it and calling me such horrible things whether he is sober or drunk. At this point I just want my children to be safe and I wonder if it’s a matter of time before he hurts one of us as angry as this makes him. Bottom line I know what I did and I’m trying, but if need be then I will do what needs to be done for the sake of the kiddos.

Bobby Nak October 12, 2010 at 2:12 pm

My wife moved out of my house and moved into an apt. My name was not on her lease or any other bill she accumilated while living in her apt. We have since divorced but recently I received an extra $900 on top of my $150 power bill. i called the power company (NV Energy) and they said it was an unpaid power bill of my wife and since we were married at the time it’s community property even though I was not on the lease or on the power bill at her address. Can I fight this? It doesn’t seem right at all to me. She has since moved out of state and will not pay it. If I don’t pay it they will shut off my power. I’m so furious!

caryn November 28, 2010 at 7:07 am

my husband and i are getting a divorce, therefore, i have accumalated alot of debt with credit cards . he says he wont be responsible ,per what his lawyer told him. is this true or not. i didnt have credit cards til after marriage and bought everything on credit . we used to pay bills together then i wanted my own account ,then he said he was done helping me pay on my cards..so, will he win with this case about not being responsible for half of my debt ?

will January 15, 2011 at 1:32 am

as for the last poster,,, if you are in a community property state,, he will be responsible.

this article is only accurate for community property states, period.

I live in oregon,, which is not! my wife has been on a spending spree,, new cars, loans, furniture, credit cards etc…
i do not own any credit cards or have any loans, nor do we have any in both names. i honestly don’t know how she got the credit… oh yeah,, while she was controlling my income, she does not work,, the bills were always behind,, because she was paying on these credit cards and stuff i did not have knowledge of,,, all while my credit went down the tube.. then she would yell at me for spending a dollar… and tell me to get back to work if i didn’t like it! i am a disabled veteran by the way.
so, recently she got upset with me, wanted a divorce and said ” that’s ok, you’ll have to pay for my debts”….

i told her she has a lesson to learn,, because i am not responsible for any debt that is solely in her name… and they all are.. that is what all the lawyers here tell me.

good luck…. and,, as far as i am concerned , if you are the one to make those purchases,, then you need to be responsible for them

Edward Nunes January 21, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Beware of the power of attorney. This is a legal document that appoints an agent to act for the signer as if he or she was the actual person. These documents can be certified by a notary public and those signatures can be forged. This is how some women get to their husband’s bank and credit accounts.

lori February 14, 2011 at 11:15 am

i have a couple of questions. first i went to college,signthe checks back over to the school.my than husband decided he wanted to go with out my knowing the school put him on under my account and with out my consent.am i respnsible for that iwent to collge but i never gradutaed.

barbie gordon September 13, 2011 at 5:48 pm

My Father was told he had dementia and his wife of 21 years abandoned him and I had to put him in a nursing home. They are not legally seperated . We live in South Carolina Who is responsible for his bills ? He made me power of attorney for his health, Am i responsible for his credit card bills, medical bills and etc. since they are still married?

Christina September 15, 2012 at 11:10 am

It would be great to have a dating website to match those in debt with those who want to help out. Note: Website membership fees go toward the side that wants to help out.

Jayne October 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm

My husband bought a property which is now in short sale (the propoerty was only in his name) but the short sale includes me (We were told by the lawyers that this is State of Michigan Law). Will this affect my credit score?

Steve February 19, 2013 at 4:00 pm

My brother has a wife who is a bit of a shopaholic. He is OK helping her pay off the debt up to today. Is there a way he can make sure that he is not responsible for any new debt that she incurs? I occasionally see announcements in the paper saying, “I, John Doe, am no longer responsibe for any new debt incurred by Jane Doe.” Do these protect you from repayment obligation?

Laura March 3, 2013 at 5:20 pm

My husband and I have been married for 25 years. In 2005 I went back to school part/ time and over the next 5 years I incurred in a debt of $20,000 with the bank. We have a line of credit together and make monthly payments to it every month. However my husband believes that the $20,000 debt is my sole responsibility despite the fact that during those years he was a full time employee and I was not. The $20,000 is the accummulation of 50% of the expenses even despite the fact that I only worked 12 hours a week at that time. Is it fair that I have to pay for that loan by myself?

More Common Sense March 21, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Whoever wrote this must have no legal training whatsoever. If you don’t sign it or go into something jointly, you aren’t responsible. The author should have his/her keyboard taken away!

(FYI, it also depends on what state you are in)

jg November 15, 2013 at 1:20 am

recently used $17,000+ to pay off a serious girlfriends college fed loan loan. We have recently, or more accurately , I have inherited a large amount of money. The power struggle has now been her recent inheritance of roughly $21,000 after taxes. How much more did i pay after taxes instead of what would have been her taxes. Email me for more accurate variables if you want to solve our problem.

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