Do You Take Your Spouse's Debt at Marriage?

by John Csiszar, Demand Media
    Getting married often has financial ramifications.

    Getting married often has financial ramifications.

    As unromantic as it sounds, marriage is a contract. While you generally can avoid inheriting your spouse's debt when you get married, you may be responsible for it going forward. How the debt is titled and whether you live in a common law or a community property state are key considerations for determining who is responsible for a debt.

    Community Property States

    There are only nine community property states, but their laws regarding spousal debt are significantly different from the common law states. While you are not responsible for any debt your spouse incurred before marriage in a community property state, you are jointly responsible for debt incurred by either spouse going forward. Even if your spouse opens a credit card in his name, you will be responsible for repayment of that debt under community property law. However, community property law does allow you to sign an agreement with your spouse stating that your debts are to be treated separately. As of 2012, the nine community property states are California, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Louisiana, Arizona, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Texas.

    Common Law States

    The 41 states that do not observe community property laws are known as common law states. In a common law state, you are not liable for your spouse's debt before marriage, and you can typically avoid responsibility for your spouse's debt after marriage. Common law holds that the only the person whose name is on the debt is liable for its repayment. An exception is if the debt was incurred for joint household expenses, such as food, clothing, shelter, education or child care.

    Joint Accounts

    If you open a joint account with your spouse, you are accepting liability for that debt regardless of whether you live in a common law or community property state. This is true even if you do not ever personally use the account. Any time you sign an agreement to pay debt, even electronically, you become responsible for the debt as well. For example, you can inherit pre-wedding debt if you sign on to your spouse's existing account as a joint holder. Consolidating your pre- and post-wedding debt or refinancing the debt together under joint names are also ways of taking on your spouse's pre-marriage debt.

    Credit Reports

    A credit report is an individual report, never a joint report. After you get married, you and your spouse will continue to maintain individual credit histories. However, if your spouse has bad credit, it may end up affecting you. Any time you apply for a joint loan, be it for a credit card, a car loan or a home mortgage, your spouse's credit history will be examined alongside yours. If your spouse has a poor credit history, you may end up being denied a loan or granted one with a high interest rate, even if you have a spotless credit history.

    About the Author

    John Csiszar began writing in 1989 at the ERIC Clearinghouse for Junior Colleges. His work appears in various online publications, including The Huffington Post. Csiszar earned a B.A. in English from UCLA and served 18 years as an investment adviser and certified financial planner.

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