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Can you inherit debt through marriage?
The short answer is “no.” For the less-short (but still important) answer, keep reading
Debt isn’t exactly a romantic topic. Whether you’re planning your wedding, enjoying your honeymoon, or settling in as newlyweds, discussions about finances and debt probably aren’t too high on your list of lovey-dovey conversations with your future or new spouse.
But that doesn’t mean you should avoid the subject. In fact, talking about debts, your monetary goals, and how you’ll manage finances as a couple is necessary before your wedding date and throughout your marriage.
When you get married, do you inherit your spouse’s debt? The short answer is “no” — but there is more to it than that. Let’s take a closer look.
In this article:
Are you responsible for your spouse’s debt acquired before marriage?
Whether it’s credit cards, student loans, medical bills, auto loans, or a mortgage, 340 million Americans carry some form of debt. American adults carrying more than $12,000 of non-mortgage debt on average; for those aged 30-49, the average is more than $26,000, according to Debt.org.
If you’ve incurred some debt before getting married, it’s natural to wonder if your spouse now shares responsibility for it or vice versa. For instance, you may be repaying student loans while your spouse has an auto loan. Do both of you become jointly responsible for each other’s payments?
No, you don’t. Any debts either spouse had before marriage remain their own responsibility, with one notable exception. If you cosign a loan for your significant other or open a joint account on a credit card before you officially tie the knot, you’re both responsible for the debt after your marriage date.
Just because your partner has pre-existing debt that they alone are responsible for, it doesn’t mean you can’t help with payments if you so choose. You can tackle these financial obligations together, paying debts off faster and working toward your goals sooner.
How do you handle debts after marriage?
Even if both you and your spouse enter marriage debt-free, you may accrue some as a family. For instance, you could open a joint credit card account to pay for expenses like new furniture. Or you may decide to purchase a home and apply for a mortgage together. You share equal responsibility for these debts with your spouse.
What if you or your spouse take on debt in your name only? The rules regarding responsibility for these debts depend heavily on where you live.
Community property states
There are currently nine community property states:
- New Mexico
In Alaska, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and South Dakota, married couples can opt into a community property system or name specific assets as community property.
If you live in a community property state or opt into a community property system, most of the assets you acquire during the marriage (income, savings, retirement earnings, real estate, and personal property) belong to you and your spouse equally.
The same goes for any debts you accrue after getting married. It doesn’t matter if either of you took on the debt alone. You both share the responsibility of paying it back. However, this doesn’t apply to assets or debts either of you had before marriage.
Common law states
All other states follow common law, including the five that allow you to opt into a community property system. Under these rules, you and your spouse share joint responsibility for assets, debts, or purchases that have both of your names attached to them. That includes food, clothing, essential household items, and childcare expenses.
But if your spouse decides to take out a loan on their own to buy something for themselves, they’re solely responsible for it even though you’re married. Should your spouse default on their payments, the creditor can’t go after your individually held assets. And while that’s a bit of a relief for you, there’s still a caveat. Depending on where you live, creditors or debt collectors could go after joint property, such as a joint savings account.
If you’re unsure of your state laws, consider consulting with a legal professional for more information.
When are you responsible for your spouse’s debts?
There are a few reasons why you and your spouse should know if you’re responsible for each other’s debts after getting married.
Defaulting on debt repayment
The consequences of making late or no payments late could affect both of you.
For instance, let’s say you took out a loan together, but only your partner uses the money. But because you took out the loan together, you’re both responsible for repaying. So any late or missing payments will appear on your credit report, affecting your credit score. It doesn’t matter what state you live in, the creditor could come after both of you.
If only one of you takes out the loan and defaults on the payments, the consequences depend on where you live. In common law states, creditors may come after the other spouse only if the loan paid for joint purchases or items that benefitted the family, such as household necessities. In some states, creditors could take jointly held assets even if the loan didn’t initially pay for family purchases, but only up to a certain amount.
Debt responsibility in the case of divorce or death
As a newlywed (or soon-to-be-wed), death and divorce probably aren’t things you want to dwell on. But it’s important to be aware of your and your spouse’s financial responsibilities in these circumstances.
Again, the responsibility for debts in a divorce depends on your location. In community property states, most debts, like assets, get split fifty-fifty. In other words, you’re generally responsible for half of the debts incurred during marriage. Specific divorce laws vary by state.
Courts in common law states use “equitable distribution” rules: the judge divides assets and debts acquired during the marriage in a manner they deem fair, which may not be fifty-fifty.
What happens if you or your spouse pass away with outstanding debt? If you live in a community property state where you share most debts equally in marriage, the surviving spouse will likely have to pay the remaining balances. They’ll also be responsible for any joint loans, credit card debt, or cosigned loans, regardless of where you live.
A life insurance policy for you and your spouse can provide financial protection. The lump sum payout of the death benefit, usually tax-free, can help the surviving spouse pay for any remaining debts should something happen to one of you. It can also be used to avoid going into debt paying for current and future financial obligations, like car loans or a mortgage.
Does getting married affect your credit score?
Wherever you live, getting married won’t directly affect your credit score. However, your spouse could affect your credit score, just as you could affect theirs.
For example, creditors consider both your and your spouse’s scores to determine your eligibility and interest rates when you apply for loans and credit cards together. And if either of you have poor financial behavior, such as maxing out a joint card or making payments late on a joint loan, that could cause both of your credit scores to drop.
How do you discuss debt and finances before and throughout marriage?
It might not be very romantic, but discussing debt and finances before and throughout marriage is important. You and your partner should be on the same page and work out any issues as a team. Here are a few tips for beginning your financial planning journey together:
- Start early. The sooner you and your partner start the discussion, the better.
- Be open and honest. You and your partner should let each other know where you stand. What debts do you have? How much? How do you plan to decrease them? You might even plan how to tackle your debts together.
- Discuss how you’ll merge finances. Do you want to merge all of your finances or keep them separate? Do you only want to combine some accounts?
- Set financial goals. What are your short- and long-term goals? Do you want to pay off student loans? Do you want to save for a house? Determine your most important goals and start making plans to accomplish them.
- Schedule regular check-ins. You don’t necessarily have to talk money every day, but you and your spouse should check in with one another periodically. Set a schedule that’s comfortable for both of you (such as weekly or monthly). Consider setting certain expectations early, such as consulting one another before making a large purchase.
Protect your new spouse with life insurance
If you or your spouse have debts, having a life insurance policy in place can potentially help the surviving spouse pay them off if one of you passes away. It also helps ensure that your family has financial protection should something happen to one of you.
It’s easier than you think to get peace of mind by purchasing a term life insurance policy from Haven Life. It’s a simple, affordable way to make sure they can pay off debts and stay secure if you aren’t around.
Start by getting a free life insurance quote today.
About Jessica MooreRead more by Jessica Moore
Our editorial policy
Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.
Our editorial policy
Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.
Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.
Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.
Haven Term is a Term Life Insurance Policy (DTC and ICC17DTC in certain states, including NC) issued by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual), Springfield, MA 01111-0001 and offered exclusively through Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC. In NY, Haven Term is DTC-NY 1017. In CA, Haven Term is DTC-CA 042017. Haven Term Simplified is a Simplified Issue Term Life Insurance Policy (ICC19PCM-SI 0819 in certain states, including NC) issued by the C.M. Life Insurance Company, Enfield, CT 06082. Policy and rider form numbers and features may vary by state and may not be available in all states. Our Agency license number in California is OK71922 and in Arkansas 100139527.
MassMutual is rated by A.M. Best Company as A++ (Superior; Top category of 15). The rating is as of Aril 1, 2020 and is subject to change. MassMutual has received different ratings from other rating agencies.
Haven Life Plus (Plus) is the marketing name for the Plus rider, which is included as part of the Haven Term policy and offers access to additional services and benefits at no cost or at a discount. The rider is not available in every state and is subject to change at any time. Neither Haven Life nor MassMutual are responsible for the provision of the benefits and services made accessible under the Plus Rider, which are provided by third party vendors (partners). For more information about Haven Life Plus, please visit: https://havenlife.com/plus
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