When it comes to getting married, you may be saying “I do” to more than just love. Bringing student loan debt into the marriage can add another level of complexity to your relationship.
Should you pay off your debt as a team or keep the payments separate? More importantly, is your spouse responsible for debt acquired before or during the marriage? Read on to find out.
How to approach debt as a married couple
When thinking about how to approach debt as a married couple, consider how you’re managing your finances altogether. Typically, there are three ways married couples approach their finances:
- Merging finances — what’s mine is yours
- Completely separate, individual finances
- His, hers, and ours — having joint funds for bills you share, while still maintaining a personal account
Looking at how you manage your overall finances can give you a clue about how you might want to tackle your debt together. If you have merged your finances, then you will be tackling student loan debt together. This can be great to help build momentum and get out of debt faster.
If your finances are separate or you take a his, hers, and ours approach, you may want to also keep your debt obligations separate. In other words, whoever got into the debt is responsible for paying it back.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that your spouse can’t or won’t help you with paying off debt. For example, under this model one spouse might pay the majority of rent and bills while the other focuses on debt repayment.
Some people believe that when you’re married everything should be done as a team. If that works for you, go for it!
But not all couples or situations are the same. The key is to communicate with your spouse and come up with a plan together that serves both of you. Get on the same page when it comes to paying off debt, because you’re in this together.
Is my spouse responsible for debt I incurred?
Whether your spouse should help pay off your debt is something only you can decide together. But legally, is your spouse responsible for debt that was acquired before or during the marriage?
“In most instances, a spouse will not be held responsible for student loan debts unless they cosigned for the loan,” says Matt Alden, a bankruptcy lawyer focusing on student loan issues.
While you may still tackle your student loan debt together as a team, your spouse likely isn’t legally responsible for your debt.
However, if your spouse cosigned for your loan, that’s a different story. “Co-signing a student loan creates a legal obligation that means the spouse can be the subject of collection activity, debt lawsuits, judgments, or garnishments if the spouse who borrowed the loans defaults on repayment,” says Alden.
Marriage is complicated — and so is the law
If your spouse didn’t cosign your loan, then they’re not legally responsible for your student loans. That’s the easy answer, but like marriage, the law is complicated and there are certain situations where your spouse could be responsible for debt you incurred.
If you take out student loans during your marriage and live in a community property state, your spouse could be liable for your debt.
According to the legal website NOLO:
“In community property states, most debts incurred by either spouse during the marriage are owed by the ‘community’ (the couple), even if only one spouse signed the paperwork for a debt. The key here is during the marriage. So if you incur a debt, such as a student loan, while you’re single, and then get married, it won’t automatically become a joint debt.”
Alden notes that it’s even more nuanced than that. “Student loans are generally treated differently than other types of debts, even in ‘community property’ states where a spouse may be held responsible for debts such as credit card bills or a car loan even when the spouse’s name isn’t on the account,” he says.
If you took on federal student loans, it’s unlikely your spouse will be responsible for paying them back, even in a community property state. However, if you have private student loans, your spouse could be responsible for your debt.
“Where the scenario can become tricky is when the student borrows private loans to pay for tuition and other educational expenses and lives in a community property state,” says Alden.
The law can vary state by state, so there is no simple answer. “It really depends on the law in an individual state and whether it makes an exception to community property rules for debt incurred to pay for education,” says Alden.
“Most community property states do [make an exception], but there may be some places where a spouse can be held responsible for repayment of private student loans incurred during the marriage even if the spouse didn’t cosign the loan,” he adds.
What if you divorce?
While no one gets married thinking that they will divorce, the stats don’t lie. Approximately 40 to 50 percent of people that marry end up divorced. In most cases, if you acquired debt before the marriage, your spouse will likely not be responsible for the debt should you part ways.
But if you took out student loans during your marriage, it gets a little more complicated. “Not all courts are consistent on this issue, but it is certainly possible for the non-borrowing spouse to be ordered to pay at least a portion of the debt pursuant to a divorce decree,” explains Matthew T. Donohue, lawyer and owner of Mid Shore Law.
“Especially in situations where the loan also paid living expenses, or the non-borrowing spouse benefitted from the increased income from the spouse’s degree for a substantial period of time,” Donohue explains.
If you’re wondering “Is my spouse responsible for my debt,” the answer really depends on your particular situation and what state you live in.
In most cases, your spouse likely isn’t legally responsible for your debt, but things can change depending on the type of loans you have, whether your student loan debt was acquired before or during the marriage, and if you live in a community property state.
There’s no black and white answer, but one thing is for certain. If you want to live happily ever after, talk about your student loan debt and come up with a plan of action together to get them gone — so you don’t have to worry about any of these potential scenarios!
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