Responsibility for Husband's or Wife's Debts
I cringe every time I see something floating around online discussing "marital debt" and how husbands and wives are legally obligated to pay off the other's debts. Your responsibility for debt that your spouse owes depends upon your state laws and your specific situation. I'm going to try to plow through the complexity of marital debt here and break it down for you once and for all which portion of your husband or wife's debts you do or do not owe.
You'll be pleased to know that you aren't legally responsible for paying off the thousands' of dollars worth of credit card debt that your spouse racked up before meeting you, the defaulted student loan he's hiding from or that old collection account that just keeps growing. Marriage may make two people "one" from a religious or moral standpoint, but that connection doesn't hold water in the financial realm. Now listen up, because this part is important: You have no liability for debts your husband or wife incurred that existed prior to your marriage no matter what state you live in. Got it? I don't care what the credit card company or debt collector said (lies), if your husband or wife accrued these debts before marrying you, you are in the clear.
Community Property States and Marital Debt
Before we go any further, I want to address community property law. Nine states are currently community property states:
- New Mexico
In general (the exact laws governing community property vary for each community property state), any debts or assets that a couple incurs during the course of a marriage are the property or responsibility of both parties. Thus, if your wife racks up a $5000 credit card debt and you live in a community property state, you're just as responsible for paying off the debt as she is. Because you were married when she made the charges, the account constitutes marital debt even if you weren't aware the account existed.
But – and this is a big "but" – community property law does not apply to debts your husband or wife owed before you got married. Those debts remain separate. Period. So the good news here is that living in a community property state does not mean that you have to assume liability for your fiance's past financial mistakes.
Marrying Into Debt
Ok, so you know you aren't legally responsible for your husband or wife's debts provided he or she incurred those debts before the two of you got married. That does not mean, however, that the existence of these debts can't have a negative impact on your finances and your marriage.
Your spouse is responsible for payment. That means that payment for the debt must come out of your husband's or wife's income – income that would otherwise be directed to running your household. So while the debt isn't marital debt and you don't have to pay collectors directly, you'll still feel the financial blow when collectors come calling.