Does One Partner's Credit Card Debt Become a Debt of the Marriage?

Your liability for your partner's debt could depend in large part on where you live.

Your liability for your partner's debt could depend in large part on where you live.

When you get married, your life becomes financially intertwined with your partner's. In some states, you can keep your finances somewhat separate, but in others you and your spouse become equal financial partners. If you marry a partner with lots of credit card debt, you might become personally responsible for that debt yourself. Your assets might even be at risk to satisfy the demand of your partner's creditors.

Common Law States

In most states, you and your spouse can keep your credit card debt separate. If your partner brings credit card debt into the marriage, he is the only one responsible for its repayment. Unless you sign on as a joint owner or authorized user, your spouse's credit cards or other debt won't appear on your credit report either. If you choose to make payments on your partner's debt, you are allowed to do so without incurring any responsibility for future payments.

Community Property States

If you live in one of the nine community property states, you might be equally liable for your partner's credit card debt. California, Washington, Nevada, Texas, Arizona, Wisconsin, Idaho, New Mexico and Louisiana operate under the principle that a marriage is like a partnership, with each spouse equal for 50 percent of the marriage's assets and liabilities. Any debt you or your spouse incurs after marriage becomes a debt of the marriage itself, with both of you legally responsible for repayment. There are certain exceptions, such as if you can prove that a debt in one single name was only used to benefit one spouse, but in general all debts after marriage result in joint liability. Debts incurred in one partner's name before the marriage can be kept separate and avoid joint liability.

Joint Accounts

Regardless of which state you live in, if you and your partner open a joint credit account, you are both liable for its repayment. This is true even if one spouse is the sole user of the credit card, or the sole beneficiary of the credit. The credit card will appear on the credit reports of both spouses, and any missed or late payments will damage both spouses' credit scores.

Effect on Assets

Even if you live in a common law state or can manage to keep your community property debt distinct, your assets might be at risk in the event of a credit default. While creditors can only pursue your partner's half of your assets if you keep your debt separate, you may still face the liquidation of some of your property in some states. For example, if your spouse has to file bankruptcy over unpaid debts, creditors might be able to liquidate some of his property. While you will be reimbursed for the cash value of your half of the assets, you will still have to deal with the liquidation of the property.

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