Marriage is supposed to be for better or worse, and sometimes “worse” can mean mountains of debt that you didn’t personally incur – but only within certain parameters.
There’s really no blanket federal law that covers this issue. Instead, it comes down to state law, so your vulnerability and responsibility depend to a great extent on where you live. If you’re considering getting married and you know that your beloved owes a lot of money, consider meeting with a local attorney to find out exactly where you stand.
Debts Incurred Before the Wedding
First, the good news. Virtually every state draws a firm line in the sand between premarital debt and debts incurred after the date of the marriage. Premarital debt does not automatically become the spouse’s responsibility simply because you've said “I do.” Don’t believe creditors who contact you and try to convince you otherwise.
This isn’t to say that those debts can’t possibly affect you, however. No, the creditor can’t demand payment from you, but it can garnish your spouse's wages or assets if she defaults on paying them, and assets could potentially include her half of any jointly-owned property.
If You Open Joint Accounts
Your spouse’s debt can become your debt if you take steps to legally assume responsibility for it, such as if you transfer one of his credit card balances onto your own card to help him out. The creditor and the law don’t care where that debt originated. All they care about is that it’s currently in your name, and that makes you liable for it.
The same applies to joint accounts you might take out together before you actually get married. It doesn’t matter that they’re technically premarital because you’re not married yet. It always comes down to who contractually assumes responsibility for the debt, so if you co-sign on an auto loan for your soon-to-be spouse, you’re just as responsible for that debt as he is. It would be the same as co-signing for a sibling or friend. This rule prevails after you’re married as well.
What If Your Spouse Is an Authorized User?
Simply using your spouse’s credit card to make purchases doesn’t automatically make you liable for paying it. He can name you as an authorized user, and this might even result in the account’s activity appearing on your credit report, but it doesn’t create a contractual responsibility for making payments on the account.
Marital Debts in Community Property States
The issue can become much more complicated after you tie the knot. This is where your state of residence comes into play.
If you live in one of the nine community property states – Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Washington, Idaho, Wisconsin, Nevada and Louisiana – you’ll most likely be responsible for post-marital debts in your spouse’s sole name after you get married. In these states, all debts incurred after the date of the wedding and prior to separation or divorce are considered by law to be owed by the marital union. That means both of you. This can be the case even if you didn’t know that the debt was incurred or if it was incurred for less-than-honorable purposes.
This mutual responsibility can extend to marital assets. If the debts aren’t paid, creditors are typically within their rights to seize community property. This means both your wages, as well as most assets purchased or acquired after the date of the marriage. Creditors can usually even take your spouse’s share of community property for premarital debts.
The finer details can vary even among these states, however, so you might want to check with a local attorney.
Marital Debts in Common Law States
If you live in one of the other 41 states, you’re most likely not responsible for your spouse’s debts even after marriage, provided that they’re in her sole name. This can change if you divorce, however. In this event, it’s usually up to the court to decide who owes what debts that were taken on during the marriage, but the debts that only she contracted for would most likely be assigned to her for payment. An exception might exist if the debt was taken out to meet family needs.
Your spouse’s share of jointly-owned marital property might be vulnerable in these states if she defaults on any loans, although property you hold in “tenancy by the entirety” is usually safe from creditor claims.
Beverly Bird has worked as a paralegal in the areas of personal finance and bankruptcy for over 20 years. She has been writing professionally for over 30 years.