Whether or not you’re responsible for your spouse’s debt depends on what state you live in. If you live in a non-community property state, you’re only responsible for debt in your name and debt you’ve co-signed on. If you live in one of nine community property states (or Puerto Rico), you are responsible for your spouse's debt regardless of whose name is on it. There are some exceptions though, which we’ll explain in this article.
Written by Attorney Paige Hooper.
Updated March 10, 2022
Marriage doesn’t just join a couple’s hearts. In many cases, it also joins their finances. The main factor in determining whether you’re responsible for your spouse’s debt is whether you live in a community property state. The type of debt and other factors also come into play. This article covers whether and to what extent you’re responsible for your spouse’s debt, what creditors can do as a result, and tips to protect yourself and your spouse against each other’s debts.
If You Live in a Community Property State, You’re Responsible for Your Spouses Debt
In some states, when two people get married, they become one unit from a financial standpoint. These states are called community property states. The general rule in these states is that any property that one spouse owns belongs to both spouses. Likewise, any debt that one spouse owes is owed by both spouses.
There are nine U.S. states and one U.S. territory that apply community property laws. These include:
In community property states, any property spouses acquire, debt they accumulate, and income they earn during their marriage is shared by both spouses. Note that “shared” doesn’t necessarily mean shared equally. Some community property states take an equal-shares approach, but other states divide shared property based on other factors, such as the percentage of marital income each spouse earns. This issue primarily comes up in a divorce, when spouses are dividing assets and debts. It doesn’t usually affect a creditor’s right to collect against either spouse.
If you live in a community property state, you’re responsible for your spouse’s debts. It doesn’t matter whether your name is on the account or whether you signed an agreement with the creditor. This includes credit card debt: Both spouses are responsible, even if one is just an authorized user. In these states, creditors can collect a debt from either or both spouses. This means that to collect your spouse’s debt, a creditor can:
Garnish your wages.
Seize money from your bank account, even if it’s not a joint account.
Put a lien on your property, even if the property is titled only in your name.
Take your property, including property titled only in your name.
Exceptions to the Shared-Debts Rule
As with all rules, there are exceptions to the shared-debts rule. Even in a community property state, you’re not responsible for your spouse’s separate debts. Separate debts include:
Debt your spouse incurred before your marriage unless you signed something agreeing to be responsible for this debt.
Debt for unpaid child support or alimony your spouse owes from a prior relationship, even if the payments didn’t become past due until after you were married.
Debt your spouse incurs after you two are permanently separated or divorced.
Debt incurred during your marriage if your spouse actively hid the fact that they were married from the creditor.
There are also exceptions to the shared-property rule. Your spouse doesn’t have any ownership rights in your separate property, which includes:
Property you owned or income you earned before you were married.
Property you acquire and income you earn after you two are permanently separated or divorced.
Any gifts or inheritances you receive during the marriage (including gifts from your spouse).
Your separate property stops being separate if you use it for marital purposes or commingle it with marital property. For example, if you inherit a house and then you and your spouse live in it together during your marriage, it’s no longer separate property. As another example, say before your marriage you had your own bank account that contained your own money, then you continued to use the same account to deposit your income and pay your expenses after you got married. All the money in the account is now community property, even the amount from before your marriage.
You can take steps to protect your separate property and keep it separate, such as keeping any gift money or inheritances in a separate account that you never use for any other purpose. During your marriage, you can also keep your income in a separate account from your spouse’s income, so your account can’t be levied to pay your spouse’s debts.
In a community property state, debts are presumed to be joint debts, and property is presumed to be joint property. This means that your spouse’s creditors could take action against your separate property or to collect your spouse’s separate debt. If this happens, you’ll have the burden of showing that the property or debt is separate.
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Non-Community Property States
Most states aren’t community property states. These states are sometimes called common-law states. This isn’t to be confused with common-law marriage, which is an entirely different concept that’s only recognized in eight states. In non-community property states, you’re not responsible for your spouse’s debts unless you’re a co-signer on the debt. For credit card debt, you’re not liable for the debt on your spouse’s card if you’re just an authorized user (as opposed to a co-signer).
In these states, creditors can only take action against the spouse whose name is on the debt. They can collect joint debts — where both names are on the debt — from either spouse or both spouses. Even in non-community property states, your spouse’s creditors can levy money from a joint bank account. They can also put a lien on or take property that’s titled in both names.
But unlike community property states, if a creditor takes joint property to collect your spouse’s debt, the creditor must pay you for your portion of that property. Likewise, if a creditor takes money from a joint bank account to collect your spouse’s debt, the creditor must return your portion of the money to you. Because of this, creditors in these states usually avoid taking action against joint assets (except to collect joint debts).
Exceptions in Non-Community Property States
In a non-community property state, if you get divorced, the divorce judge can still divide any marital debts between you and your spouse, regardless of the name on the account. But creditors don’t have to obey your divorce decree. Even if your divorce decree orders your ex-spouse to pay a debt, creditors can still collect it from you if your name’s on the account. If your divorce decree contains an indemnification clause, your ex-spouse must reimburse you in this situation.
If you live in a community property state, you and your spouse share all of your debts and all of your assets. This means creditors can collect your spouse’s debt from you or take your property to pay your spouse’s debt. It doesn’t matter whose name is on the property or debt. There are some exceptions for certain types of property and debts. In a non-community property state, each spouse is only responsible for the debt in their own name, unless both spouses are co-signers.