Married with Debt

Carl Andrews

Financial Advisor
Updated: 7/2019

Married with Debt

One of the biggest stressors of any marriage is finances. Happy couples are likely to have put the effort and time into discussing finances at length before tying the knot. Before you think of making those vows, it is critical that you have these important conversations with your spouse.

In addition to discussing long term financial goals, short term aspirations, and devising a solid budget, you will need to address the subject of debt. This is especially important if either party is bringing outstanding debt into the marriage. Getting on the same page about how to deal with current debt, how to pay for the wedding, and how to manage debt going forward is a meaningful conversation that every engaged couple needs to have.

In This Article

Considerations to Make

The merging together of two previously separate lives also means the bringing together of unique debts and assets. One of the most important financial issues that you will need to confront as a new married couple is how to deal with the debt that each party brings into the union. In the eyes of the law, debt brought into a marriage is the responsibility of the person who incurred it. While you may choose to pay off the debt as a team once you marry, the debt would revert back to the person who originally incurred it in the event of a divorce.

Depending on what state you call home, there are different rules about the ownership of debt for married couples. In the majority of states, common law rules apply. In these common law states, joint accounts are the responsibility of both parties. However, if a debt is incurred by only one partner in the marriage, that party is the only one liable for the loan. This protects the other person and their assets should the loan fall into a collection. It is important to note that there are some exceptions to this common law policy. For example, debt that was incurred in only one name but that benefitted the entire family could end up the responsibility of both parties. Examples of these shared expenses include childcare, home repairs, and other general household expenses.

While most states fall under the provisions of common law practices, there are nine states that are designated community property states. These nine states are:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Lousiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

In these nine states, assets and debts are all split during a divorce. This means that any debt taken on by one party during marriage automatically becomes a shared debt, even if the loan was only in one name.

Regardless of the laws of your state, it is important to come to an understanding of how you are going to treat debt brought into the marriage. Some options include paying it off jointly together, being responsible for paying your own debt, and signing a legal agreement that states each person’s debt is to be treated separately. A prenuptial agreement is more common when one spouse is worth more than the other or if one party operates its own separate business. There are no hard and fast rules because each situation is unique.

It is also important to consider the tax implications of combing your assets and debts. A professional accountant can help you to understand how the tax law will change your financial situation when you marry. Your specific tax situation will change depending on how to you decide to combine assets, making it important that you know how to maximize your gains.

Married with Debt

How to Use Debt Responsibly as a Couple

Regardless of how much debt, if any, is brought into the marriage, it is important to have a mutual understanding of how you will use debt moving forward. One key to a healthy marriage is respecting your partner’s views on debt. One person might be more hesitant to take on any debt at all while the other partner might be more willing to incur debt for certain situations. In order to develop a healthy view of marriage finances, you will need to compromise with your partner on how to use debt.

If you cannot agree on how to use debt, it is a good idea to bring in a third party. An independent financial advisor can help you to see things more objectively without the heated emotions that often accompany discussions on finances within a marriage. An advisor can also help to assess the debt and provide recommendations for a strategic plan to deal with it responsibly.

Going into a Debt for a Wedding

With the soaring costs of today’s average wedding, it is getting more expensive to put on the wedding of your dreams. Because couples are marrying later in life, they are more likely to buck tradition and pay for the nuptials themselves. You can even find loans that are specially designed for weddings. People who take on a wedding loan justify it by saying that the interest rates are typically much lower than that of a credit card. Conversely, financial advisers who recommend that you stay away from these loans point to all of the other things that this debt could pay for.

Before you make the decision to go into debt to have the day you have always fantasized about, you need to figure out the total cost of the loan or debt payoff including the interest. You may come to the conclusion that you are willing to compromise on certain aspects of your wedding in order to avoid these costly charges. Whether or not this is a good idea for you is a personal decision that only you and your future spouse can make together.

How to Get Out of Debt

There is no easy answer to getting out of debt. There is also no one size fits all approach to tackling debt. Each situation is highly dependent on your current levels of debt, income levels, cost of living expenses, and overall financial goals. Here are a few proven ways that have helped others get out of debt:

  • Pay Over Minimum – The most obvious way to get out of debt is to remain committed to paying more than the minimum amount due on credit cards and other debts. Not only will this save on overall interest paid over the lifetime of the loan, but it will also speed up the repayment process.
  • Debt Snowball Method – One of the most widely used techniques to get out of debt is the debt snowball method. With this technique, you pay off the smallest debt first and then roll the amount you were paying on that into the next smallest debt. Once the smaller balances disappear, you will have more money to put toward the bigger debts. This process continues until all of the debts are wiped out. One benefit of this approach is the sense of accomplishment that you get as you knock out another debt. This motivation encourages you to keep after the plan until you are free of debt.
  • Lower Interest Cards – It never hurts to contact your creditors and ask for lower interest rates. Regardless of it is a credit card or a personal loan, you will often find banks that are willing to lower the rate.
  • Debt Consolidation – This method reduces the stress of having multiple debts to manage and possibly gets you a lower interest rate. Credit card consolidation can be done via either another lower interest credit card or debt consolidation loans which are more or less personal loans depending on where you get them.
  • Find a Part-time Job or Side Hustle – While it may not be as fun, the most effective way to pay off debt quickly is to simply earn more money to put toward it. Brainstorm about skills that you have that you can monetize and go hard after that business. Any money that you earn above and beyond your normal income can be used to accelerate debt payments.
  • Implement a Bare-bones Budget: You may be surprised at how much money you can find if you are committed to living with a bare-bones budget. Extra costs such as satellite television, daily coffee runs, and more can really add up and be put toward debt pay-off.
  • Debt Relief – As a sometimes last resort people will reach out to companies for debt relief help. Two such companies are National Debt Relief and Freedom Debt Relief which we review in depth. Debt relief can include a number of different services, some already mentioned above, to help you get back on track and out of debt.

Monthly Financial Planning Dates

One of the best ways to keep your finances and your relationship healthy is to commit to monthly financial planning dates. Pick a time that works for both partners and escape to a place that is void of distractions. A coffee shop with free Wi-Fi is always a good idea for these discussions. These dates should be used to check in with the progress toward both your long term and short term financial goals.

You can also use these meetings to make budget adjustments. Not only will the dates keep you apprised of new financial developments, but they will also hold each party accountable for their spending. While it may be tempting to put the meetings on the backburner if things are going well with the overall financial picture, it is important to stay the course with regular discussions.

Married with Debt

Safeguarding Your Future to Avoid Debt

If you have joint assets or if you have people who depend on you financially, you will need to enter the marriage knowing that your future is protected. An attorney can help you to draw up a will and help you to understand how to protect your assets in this new phase in life. You will also want to consider life insurance needs if your spouse depends on you financially. Learning ways to safeguard your future will help you to stay out of debt should a tragedy strike.

Discussing Future Family Plans

While starting a family may be still in the distant future, it is important to discuss the financial implications of this before walking down the aisle. There are a variety of issues to address when it comes to having kids. First of all, you will need to agree on when you want to start a family and how that works into the career aspirations of each partner. When you take the leap with children, does one parent want to stay home, necessitating a single-earner household? Are you willing to go into short term debt in order for one parent to stay home with the child or is it more important that you stay out of debt? These are all discussions that you should have prior to beginning your new life together.

As with any issue in a marriage, effective communication is the cornerstone of healthy and productive discussions. Keeping the lines of communication open, not judging the other person for past financial decisions, and being committed to supporting your partner’s financial goals will all help you to work together as a team to reach all of your mutual and individual dreams.

FAQ

General Questions about Marriage and Debt

We’ll answer your general questions about marriage and debt in this section. Use this information to form a foundation to understand more specific questions.

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When you get married does your spouse's debt become yours?
Not in most cases. Debt is usually only assigned to the person that signed for the debt. If you didn’t sign your spouse’s debts before marriage, then you aren’t responsible for them after marriage.
Can a debt collector call my spouse?
Yes, a debt collector can call your spouse to discuss the payment of debt. That doesn’t mean that your spouse is liable for the debt.
Can a spouse's wages be garnished for the other's debt?
Not in most cases – a spouse can only be held for the other’s debt if the account that accrued the debt was jointly signed.
How to protect yourself from spouse's debt?
The best way to protect yourself from a spouse’s debt is by refusing to sign as a cosigner or open a joint account with your spouse.
Can a prenup protect you from spouse's debt?
It depends on the specific nature of the prenup and of the debt. You’ll need to talk to a qualified lawyer about your specific situation.
Can both spouses be garnished for the same debt?
That depends on the type of debt. If you’re both holders of the account, then yes. Otherwise, no, one spouse’s wages cannot be garnished for another’s debt.
How does debt work when you get married?
When you get married, nothing changes about your debt. Each person is individually responsible for the debt they have when they get married. The only exception is joint accounts.
When you get married what happens to your debt?
Your debt doesn’t change when you get married. Your spouse is only responsible for debts that they’ve signed for, not anything else.
Can I marry without acquiring my spouse's debt?
Yes, you aren’t responsible for any debts your spouse has before you get married. Debt collectors can contact you, but you aren’t obligated to pay.
Should I pay off debt before getting married?
It’s always a good idea to pay off debt, marriage or no. However, it’s up to you to decide whether your current debt will negatively affect your marriage.
How to lower debt for married couples?
That depends on the specific nature of your debt. You should talk to a qualified financial planner to help you understand your options.
Do spouses owe money on debts from before marriage?
No, spouses don’t owe money on debts from before marriage unless they also signed on to the account that carries the debt.
Does marriage cancel debt?
No, marriage doesn’t cancel debt. You’ll still be responsible for all the debt you had before you got married.
How to help my family get out of debt?
The best way to help your family get out of debt depends on your specific situation. We recommend talking to a qualified financial planner to help you understand your options.
Are married couples responsible for each other's debt?
Not unless both people are signed on to the account that carries the debt. If only one person is signed on the account, then that person is the only one who holds the debt.

Marriage and Debt When a Spouse Dies

This section covers your questions about what happens to debt in the unfortunate situation where someone dies.

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Am I responsible for my spouse's debt after death?

Not in most cases. The major exception to this is if you were a co-signer on the accounts that are in debt. However, if you aren’t, then you aren’t personally responsible for your debt.

Who is responsible for debt when a spouse dies?

The spouse’s estate is responsible for their debt. In most cases, the estate will be exclusively responsible, however, you may have some liability if you are a cosigner on the account.

Does spouse inherit credit card debt?

A spouse will not inherit your credit card debt unless they are a cosigner on the account for the credit card.

When a spouse dies what happens to debt?

That depends on the specific types of debt and who signed for the account. You will only be responsible for debts that you signed for.

Is family responsible for deceased debt?

No – the deceased’s estate is responsible for their debt unless another person is a co-signer on the account or the account is jointly held.

Liability for Specifics Debts in Marriage

This section answers your questions about specific liabilities for debt in a marriage.

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Are you liable for your spouse's debts?

You are only liable for your spouse’s debts if you hold the account jointly with them. Otherwise, they are solely responsible for their own debts.

Am I responsible for my spouse's medical debt?

Not in most cases – this depends on the state where you live and how it handles common property im marriage.

Am I responsible for my spouse's credit card debt?

That depends on if the account is in your name or if it’s in just your spouse’s name. If you are a cosigner on the account, then you are responsible. Otherwise, you’re probably not responsible.

Am I responsible for my spouse's debt after separation?

Whether or not you’re responsible for your spouse’s debt after separation depends on things like the type of debt, who signed what, and your divorce agreement. You’ll need to talk to a lawyer to determine liability in your specific case.

Am I responsible for my spouse's student loan debt?

Not in most cases. You will only be responsible for your spouse’s student loan debt if you cosigned their student loans.

Are you responsible for your spouse's debt before marriage?

No, debts before marriage are the responsibility of the initial party, unless a contract or agreement explicitly changes this.

Is spouse liable for business debt?

That depends on how the business debt is structured. You’ll need to talk to a lawyer to determine what your liabilities are in your situation.

Am I liable for my spouse's tax debt?

That depends on your specific situation. If you filed your taxes jointly, then you may be responsible for your spouse’s tax debt.

Am I liable for spouse debt under my health insurance?

Whether or not you’re responsible for spouse debt under your health insurance is a complicated situation. You’ll need to talk to a professional about your case to determine what your liability is.

Do your student loan debts combine when you get married?

No, when you get married your student loan debts don’t combine in any way unless you decide to consolidate your loans with a joint consolidation loan.

Is married couple both liable for credit card debts?

Not in most states, however, some states that have common property laws may allow credit card companies to collect from spouses. Usually only the person that is signed on the account is responsible for the debt.

Are family responsible for student loan debt if I die?

No, in the event of your death your student loans will be discharged. Families are not responsible for student loan debt after you die.

How to get pardoned from your spouses tax debt?

Dealing with a spouse’s tax debt can be a complicated situation. You’ll need to talk to a lawyer or qualified tax preparer to get more information about your specific case.

Is a spouse liable for mortgage debt?

That depends on the laws in the state where you live and how the account is structured. If your spouse jointly signed the mortgage account with you, then they will be responsible for the debt.

Who pays for Medicaid debt when spouse dies?

In the majority of cases your spouse’s estate will be responsible for Medicaid debt. You’ll need to talk to an estate planning lawyer for more information about your specific situation.

Marriage, Debt, and Debt Collections

We’ll answer your questions about debt collection and debt in this section.

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Is it legal for debt collectors to call family members?

It depends why they’re calling and what they say when they call. Debt collectors can’t tell your family they’re trying to collect a debt unless the family asks. They also can only call for location information, not to ask about the debt.

How do debt collectors get family members phone numbers?

Debt collection agencies have their own tactics and methods for obtaining phone numbers. Federal law regulates what they can say to family members, not whether or not they can call them.

Can debt collectors take from family?

Debt collectors are not allowed to ask family members to pay debts or disclose that they are calling about a debt unless the family explicitly asks why they’re calling.

Can debt collectors go after family?

Not in most cases. Usually debt collectors are prevented from contacting family members for anything other than location information.

Other Marriage and Debt Questions

This section covers other questions about debt and marriage that don’t fit into our other categories. Check here if you can’t find your question elsewhere.

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How to tell spouse about debt?

The best way to tell your spouse about debt is to be open and honest about the situation. Hiding your debt won’t make it go away and can make things worse later.

Should I marry someone with debt?

That’s up to you. Many people find satisfying marriages with people who have debt, but you’ll need to decide how much debt is too much and what it means for your future.

How does debt affect marriage?

That depends on who has the debt and how the debt is structured. You’ll need to talk to a certified financial planner to see how your debt will affect your marriage.

How much debt is too much before marriage?

There’s no single answer to how much debt is too much before marriage. You’ll need to make sure that you understand how much debt your partner has and determine how that influences your thoughts about marriage.

How to remove debt from marriage?

That depends on what kind of debt you have, how much debt you have, and other factors. We recommend talking to a financial planner or debt relief specialist about your situation.

What to do when marriage is over and in debt?

That depends on your specific situation. Your divorce lawyer can help you understand your responsibilities and liabilities once your marriage is over.

What percent of American families are in debt?

The average American household has about $38,000 in personal debt, not counting home mortgages. Almost 87% of families have debt in the US.

How much debt does the average American family have?

The average American family carries about $38,000 in debt, with more than 87% of families having debt in the US.

What is the average credit card debt per family?

As of 2016, the most recent year statistics are available from, the average American family has about $16,000 in credit card debt.

Can your passport be voided if your family has debt?

You may lose your passport or be denied an application if you have unpaid tax debt in some situations.

How to write a debt settlement agreement with a spouse?

It’s complicated to write a debt settlement agreement with a spouse. We recommend letting a divorce lawyer handle this for you, or seeking the advice of a lawyer familiar with your specific case.

Carl Andrews


Carl has years of experience helping people tackle debt. As a Senior Financial Advisor, he knows the ins and outs of debt consolidation and debt management. He holds a Masters Degree in Finance and according to him, not all debt problems are the same and that’s why it’s important to take a look at the different options available for your situation.