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Am I Responsible for My Spouse's Debt?

By Michelle McGuinness · January 18, 2024 · 9 minute read

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Am I Responsible for My Spouse's Debt?

You may enter into marriage with shared goals and plans for the future, but what about debt? Whether your partner’s debt becomes your responsibility when wed depends on the state you reside in, the kind of debt, and other specifics.

You’ll learn more about that ahead. This guide covers the difference between common law and community law states and the different sorts of debt that may be managed in a marriage. Read on to learn the details.

How Does Debt in Marriage Work?

Here’s a quick course in marital property and marriage guidelines:

•   Marital property refers to assets acquired as a couple, such as real estate, bank accounts, and investments. Debt can also be a facet of marital property.

•   The state in which you live (meaning where your permanent address is) determines whether you are in a community or common law state and governed by its rules.

•   Most states are common law states. If property is acquired during a marriage by one partner and in only that partner’s name, it’s their sole property. So if you were married and bought a Tesla in your name, the car is yours.

•   In a community property state, however, assets and debts acquired by one spouse in a marriage are considered to be the property of both partners.


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In Which States Are You Responsible for Your Spouse’s Debt?

You are probably curious about which states have community property law. Here’s the list or the nine that do:

•   Arizona

•   California

•   Idaho

•   Louisiana

•   Nevada

•   New Mexico

•   Texas

•   Washington

•   Wisconsin

What’s more, Alaska, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, South Dakota, and Tennessee have enacted elective community property laws. These are “opt-in” if a couple chooses to do so.

There are exceptions to these rules, such as if one partner receives an inheritance or if one owned property prior to marriage.

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Am I Responsible for My Spouse’s Credit Card Debt?

Whether or not you are responsible for your spouse’s credit card debt can depend on which state you reside in.

In a common law state:

•   In a common law state, your partner’s credit card belongs only to them. The law provides that one spouse owns a particular asset unless you both put your names on it. That includes property like houses, automobiles, and even credit cards. If your spouse has a credit card with their name on it, it’s theirs alone. Therefore, the credit card debt liability also falls entirely on their shoulders.

•   You would need to become a joint account holder in order to own any part of that debt. However, you could also be on the hook for that debt if you co-signed on the account.

•   If your spouse made you an authorized user, though, that still leaves the credit card entirely in their name and not yours, meaning you hold no responsibility for paying any associated debts.

In a community property state:

•   In a community property state, if they get a credit card while you’re married, that debt now belongs to both of you. Both partners are liable, regardless of who might have opened the account or accrued the debt.

•   There is an exception: If you and your spouse are separated before they begin racking up the debt in question, you may not be held responsible. Each situation is different, however, and the state could hold you responsible for the debt in question should it be proved the debt was incurred for the benefit of the marriage.

•   It’s good to keep in mind that if you have debts from before the marriage, such as a car loan, those will belong only to you. However, if you get another car loan after getting married, that is now a communal debt that you and your partner share.

Am I Responsible for My Spouse’s Medical Debt?

As you might guess, in community property states, a spouse is likely to be held responsible for a spouse’s debts, though the specifics may vary state by state. This includes medical debt.

In a common law state, you typically would not be responsible for debts your spouse alone incurred, but again, there are exceptions to this rule. (For instance, if you cosign when a partner is admitted for medical treatment.) You’ll learn more about these scenarios below.

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Situations Where You May Be Responsible for Your Spouse’s Debt

When it comes to debt and marriage, there are some scenarios worth considering. If you are the kind of person to wonder, “How can I protect myself from my husband’s debt?” or “wife’s debt,” then read on.

When You Are a Joint Account Holder

Even if you live in a community property state, if your spouse racks up debt on a credit card you jointly hold, you may indeed be liable.

When You Live in a Community Property State

As you read above, if you live in a community property state, your spouse’s debts acquired during marriage will become yours as well.

When You “Opt in” into Community Property

As noted above, Alaska, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, South Dakota, and Tennessee have laws that can allow you to opt into community property arrangements although the states may default to common law guidelines. If you do so, you will become liable for debt that your partner incurs.

When You Cosign for Medical Payments

In a situation where you live in a common law state, if your spouse were to enter medical care or a medical facility, and you agree to cosign, you will become liable for the expenses related to this treatment.

Possibly When Your Spouse Dies

Much as no one wants to think about death, there are situations in which you could be liable for a deceased partner’s debts. These include if you live in a community property state, if you cosigned on a loan or for medical care, or if you had a joint account, among other scenarios.

Will My Partner’s Debt Affect My Credit Score?

Regardless of whether you live in a community property or common law state, your credit score is yours alone. Being married doesn’t mean that you and your spouse now have the same score or that your scores get merged.

However, if you and your spouse both sign up for a joint credit card or take out a loan together, that information will show up on each of your credit reports.

What Happens to Debt If We Separate Or Divorce?

When couples decide to separate, one of the first questions may be “How much will a divorce cost me?” That is typically very quickly followed by, “What happens to our debt?” The answer to the latter will likely be: It depends.

•   Debt responsibility in a divorce isn’t as simple as dividing things in half. For example, if you have a credit card that is only in your name, that debt remains entirely with you in a common law state. However, if you have a joint credit card, most states will see that as joint debt if you separate or divorce, meaning you’ll both be responsible for that debt. It doesn’t matter who was making payments or running up bills; the law will see it as a shared burden.

•   If, however, you live in a community property state and your spouse rings up a considerable amount of credit card debt, that could be seen as a shared burden. A creditor might be able to seek repayment from both of you. There are various factors to consider, so working with a legal professional with expertise in this realm can be a smart move.

•   If you have a house, you may want to consider selling it off and splitting the money. Trying to untangle a mortgage (a form of consumer debt) if one of you will be moving out can get dicey. The partner who’s staying in the home may need to buy out the partner who’s leaving, for instance.

•   If you did any investing as a couple during your marriage, that property will need sorting out. Investments come with legal and tax obligations, on top of the financial complexity. If you invested together, you may want to split the shares or account. Or you might think about selling off those investments and dividing the proceeds during a divorce. However, a lot of investments like that come with tax burdens, so keep that in mind if you have to go this route.

Of course, the courts might answer this and other questions for you. Divorces play out in different ways, including whether they are contested or uncontested. Working with a divorce attorney can help you understand the options and possible outcomes as your marriage ends.

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The Takeaway

Even if you decide to merge your financial lives completely, finances can become complicated in a marriage. In terms of debt and whose is whose, there is the question of whether you live in a community property or common law state. There will also be the matter if debt was held before marriage or after the wedding. And then there are such concerns as whether you and your spouse cosign or become joint holders on loans and/or accounts or keep things separated. All of these factors (and more) can impact whether or not you are liable for your spouse’s debt.

When you marry, your personal banking will be impacted as well as your lines of credit and debt. You could completely merge your banking, keep things separate, or have both a joint and separate account. SoFi can offer you options to suit your particular needs.

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FAQ

Will my partner’s debt affect my credit score?

Credit scores are specific to each individual. However, if you cosign a loan or open a joint credit card, the specifics of that account will turn up on each partner’s credit reports and could impact each spouse’s score.

Am I responsible for my spouse’s debt after death?

Whether or not you are liable for your deceased spouse’s debt will depend on various factors, such as whether you live in a community property or common law state, whether the debt was incurred before or during the marriage, and whether the debt is in a joint or cosigned form.

Are married couple’s responsible for each other’s debt?

Married couples can be responsible for each other’s debt in certain circumstances, such as if the debt was incurred during the marriage in a community property state or if the debt was cosigned for or accrued with a joint credit card, among others.

Can I be forced to pay my spouse’s debt?

There are a couple of situations in which you could be forced to pay your spouse’s debts, such as if you live in a community property state or if you are a joint account holder.

Photo credit: iStock/AleksandarNakic


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