If I Marry Someone With Debt Does It Become Mine?

Posted on December 7, 2020 in Debt

While the median household income has risen steadily over the years, it has not risen nearly as sharply as the average household debt. In 2017 the median American household income hit $61,372, which is almost $20,000 higher than it was in the year 2000. However, the average household debt in 2000 was around $50,971 but skyrocketed up to $137,063 in 2017. 

As more and more Americans find themselves deeper and deeper in debt, it’s less and less likely to marry someone with zero debt, leading you to likely wonder if you and your future spouse are exchanging debt on top of vows. 

Pre-Marital Debts

This answer is quite simple really. If you marry someone who is indebted, then that debt is the responsibility of them alone, unless you cosigned on a loan or credit card or in some way used your name in order to help take out the loan. If that is not the case, then technically that debt is the sole responsibility of the spouse. 

Of course, being married, it may be an incentive to help your partner pay off some of their outstanding debts, but from a legal standpoint it’s not anyone’s responsibility but their own. 

Now, debt taken on after the marriage is a little bit more tricky and depends mostly on state-specific laws.

Community Property States

If you reside in a community property state then all debt assumed during the marriage is to be a responsibility of the “community,” with each spouse under an equal obligation for repaying the debt

Even in the event where both spouses did not agree to the debt or even if they didn’t know about them, they will both ultimately still be responsible for covering them. 

Community property states include:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Alaska (circumstantial)

Common Law States

Any other states not included in the list above are what’s known as common law states. These rules allow spouses to take on debt as individuals even after being married. They also allow for spouses to maintain separate bank accounts, borrow money as individuals, take out car loans as an individual, open credit card accounts individually and assume other types of debt as an individual as well. 

The common law rules do assign joint responsibility to each spouse for any debt that benefits the couple and their family, though. So debt created by paying for food, utilities, or rent would fall under this category, and would be a shared responsibility. 

Quite simply, any individual debt accrued by an individual during a marriage is the responsibility of that individual and not of the marriage partner.

Joint Accounts

A joint bank account is something lots of married couples use as a way to pool both of their money and resources together. Why have two separate accounts when you can have one big one together? 

This can come with a lot of responsibilities and liabilities, however, as anything signed for jointly will be equally split. Shared bank accounts means either partner has access to the funds no matter who deposited the funds and when. 

Joint credit cards or joining onto an existing credit card works the same way. Both partners can use the cards and both will be responsible to pay it back even if only one partner is spending money. 

Credit Scores

When a person gets married there is nothing that will directly affect their credit score, as the data used to compile said score does not include any information on marital status. Each individual spouse will retain their specific credit report and score after marriage, and there is no such thing as a “couple’s” credit report. 

Now, a spouse’s credit report and score would be considered if a married couple applies for a joint loan or credit card with both of their names involved. On that note, if a loan is taken out in a joint account, then both are equally responsible for paying back the debt accrued. 

Ways To Protect Yourself

Just because someone has debt does not mean they cannot or should not be involved in a loving and healthy marriage. However, if there are reasonable fears that financially your future partner is not so responsible and could potentially harm your finances, there are ways to protect yourself. 

By not adding your name to your partner’s debt by legally signing any documents, you can easily protect your credit and assets. 

Now, being in a marriage would mean wanting to help your partner get out from under their debts, but as far as on paper and legally, the debt should remain theirs alone. 

Additionally, if any debts are taken on during the marriage and your spouse’s debts could potentially harm the terms of the loan or interest payments, then it may be a good idea for the individual with the higher credit score to apply for those loans individually instead of jointly. 

Lastly, anyone living in a community property state listed above may want to consider a prenuptial agreement. A prenuptial agreement is a legal agreement made by a couple before marriage, and concerns the ownership of their respective assets and debts in the event the marriage shouldn’t work out. 

Ways To Help With Your Spouse’s Debt

Throughout the course of a marriage there will inevitably be debt incurred by each partner. The spending habits of one person will also absolutely affect the lifestyle and spending habits of the other. 

Depending on how open and honest the spouses are with each other and their level of communication, this can ultimately be a positive or negative effect on the marriage. 

Before the wedding even happens and at regular interval points afterward, a serious financial discussion should occur. Knowing where you and your partner both stand in terms of financial obligations is a key aspect of any successful marriage. Both partners should explain their existing debts, credit history and score, potential anxieties and stresses of borrowing money or paying bills, and whether or not they’ve ever gotten in way over their head with debt in the past. 

Once this talk is made, and continued to be updated throughout the marriage, there are other steps and options to take in order to help keep financial communication open and honest:

  • The spouse most comfortable with debt and managing money should handle the finances, or alternatively, get together to review and pay the bills and help advise the lesser-experienced spouse on how to properly maintain their finances
  • Determine how much of the combined household funds of each month will go to cover mutual or even individual debts, depending on what decision is made together
  • Help to ensure that each spouse is able to keep up with and ultimately eliminate their individual debts
  • Decide how to handle future debt before it’s taken on. Will a new home be bought using both names or one? Joint, or individual credit cards? 

The Takeaway: There’s no scenario where you inherit your spouse’s past debts unless you legally sign documentation where you agree to do so (which is an uncommon occurrence in the first place).

There is no right way to run a marriage but there are many wrong ways. When it comes to individual and jointly accrued debt, at the end of the day, a marriage is an alliance between two people, and everything, including finances, should be handled together as a team. If this is not an acceptable proposition for someone, then maybe it’s best to hold off the marriage for a while until their spouse has their finances in better order. 

By looking into a potential spouse’s financial history you can learn a lot about them. Why are they in so much debt? Was it something unavoidable like a medical bill? Maybe student loans, like a large majority of the population struggles with? Or were they just irresponsible, buying luxuries they couldn’t afford with their salary?

If they are living a lifestyle they cannot afford and therefore creating substantial debts, then will that lifestyle change after the marriage or will you be involved and now create your own debts as a result? 

Ultimately a marriage is made up of two separate individuals with different pasts and upbringings, so communication and understanding are the best ways to address any and all potential issues that can arise, especially financial ones, and trust us, they will arise so it’s best to be proactive talking about it until waiting for a problem to come up that makes you talk about it. 

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