How to Legally Protect Yourself From Your Spouse's Debt

If both your names are on the loan, you're both responsible for it.

If both your names are on the loan, you're both responsible for it.

Marriage means sharing, but it doesn't have to mean sharing your spouse's debt burden. This isn't an issue with premarital debts, as you're not responsible for bills your spouse ran up while he was single. After marriage, it depends where you live. In community property states, your spouse's individual debts are usually yours as well. In common law property states, couples don't share individual debts, but your spouse's creditors may be able to take property that you own jointly with your spouse. You can find out your state's status online.

Work out a prenuptial or post-nuptial agreement with your spouse that keeps your income and debts separate. In community property states this doesn't protect you against any debts your spouse has already run up, but it will shield you against debts he incurs after the agreement is signed.

Separate your finances from your spouse's to limit your vulnerability to her creditors. In common law property states, if you don't cosign loans and your bank accounts are separate, her creditors have only limited ability to take your assets. If you have a prenup or postnup separating your finances, it's still important to keep your assets and accounts separate: If you treat them as if they're shared, a court may decide you should share debts as well.

File bankruptcy, even if your spouse refuses. If you're already obligated for some of your spouse's bills, a bankruptcy discharge will wipe that obligation away, though if your spouse doesn't file, he'll still be on the hook. If you file bankruptcy in a community property state, his creditors can still take jointly owned marital property that acquired before the bankruptcy.


  • Check your state's law for any quirks specific to that state. North Carolina, for instance, is a common-law state but you're still liable for your spouse's medical bills if she fails to pay.
  • If you and your spouse file a joint tax return, you're both liable for any unpaid taxes. If the unpaid tax is the fault of your spouse, you can apply to the IRS for "innocent spouse" relief to eliminate your debt -- otherwise, you have to pay it.

About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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