When you got married, you promised to stand by your wife "through richer or poorer." The richer part will be sweet if it happens, but you could be looking the poorer thing right in the wallet if she entered the marriage with credit card debt. In most cases, you have no legal obligation to cover her. However, your liability may rest on if your state follows common or community property law.
The vast majority of states -- 41 as of 2012 -- follow "common law." Under common law, you aren't responsible for a debt unless you sign up for it. In a common law state, you're as responsible for your wife's debt as she is if you're a co-signer on her credit card. However, if the debt is in her name only, the general rule is it's hers alone to have and to hold.
Community Property Law
If you live in Texas, Washington, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Louisiana, Wisconsin or Idaho, you're under community property law. You're considered jointly responsible for any debt either of you run up after you get married. If your wife had debt in her own name before you got married, it's hers to pay unless you agree to be a co-signer or joint account owner for that debt.
Jointly Owned Assets
Even if you aren't technically liable for your wife's debt, it could still lead to you losing some treasured stuff if she defaults. If she files bankruptcy or loses a judgment, creditors will come after her property -- and that means all of your joint property is up for grabs. Creditors will have to pay you cash for your half, but that will be small consolation given what you lose.
If your wife paid for family necessities or emergencies on her credit card, you may still end up being liable. Since the money benefited you too, creditors can pursue you for repayment even if you're in a common law state. However, they can only demand from you what she can't pay back herself. For example, if she used the card for food or medicine, but has no job or personal savings, they could come after you if she never makes the payments.
After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English from UCLA, John Csiszar earned a Certified Financial Planner designation and served 18 years as an investment adviser. Csiszar has served as a technical writer for various financial firms and has extensive experience writing for online publications.