You may have pledged to take your spouse for better or worse when you married, but does that mean you are responsible for their credit card debt? The answer to that is not ordained in heaven but depends on the more mundane matters of which state you reside in and contractual obligations.
Most U.S. states fall into the category of common law property states. In these 41 states, any assets acquired by one spouse belong solely to them.
On the other hand, in the nine states that go with so-called community law (which include Louisiana, Arizona, California, Texas, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin) assets acquired in the course of a marriage belong to both spouses.
Credit card debt liability in common law states
Common law property states regard property acquired by one spouse as belonging to them alone. However, if you are both named as owners, the property would belong to both of you. If your spouse owns a credit card that is solely in their name, you are not liable for their debt. However, creditors do have recourse to your spouse’s share in any assets that you own jointly with them.
And if you are a joint account-holder on a credit card, both of you will be liable. You would also be liable if you co-signed the account for them. However, if you are merely an authorized user on your spouse’s credit card, you will not be held liable for their debt.
Spouse’s liability in community law states
In so-called community property law states, assets acquired by any partner to the marriage are considered community property.
If debt is incurred in the course of the marriage, it could be considered a community debt for the benefit of the marriage for which you would be held liable too. However, if you are separated from your spouse and they then proceed to rack up debt, you wouldn’t necessarily be held responsible for such debt. Each situation is different, though, and if the state decides that this debt was incurred to benefit the marriage, you might still be held liable with your spouse.
In addition, you would be liable for credit card debts if you are a joint account-holder, or co-signed the account.
Divorce or death of a spouse
If you go through a divorce, a court could assign debt to you that you are not originally liable for per the contractual terms of a credit card agreement. For instance, you are not a joint account holder and not liable per the card agreement.
Even then, you would be responsible per the court’s assignment to pay off the debt assigned to you. If you don’t pay off this debt, while the card issuer cannot hold you responsible, your spouse could still sue you for disregarding the court order.
If your ex-spouse also files for bankruptcy, the bankruptcy court could discharge some of their debt. If it is a joint account, you would still be responsible for the outstanding debt.
And in case your spouse passes away, you would generally only be liable for their credit card debt if you are a joint account-holder or co-signor on the account. However, the executor of the estate could tap into property that you owned with your spouse to pay off any debt due, depending on your state law.
Stay on top of your credit reports
The law lays down that debt collectors generally cannot contact you about a dead spouse’s debts unless you are a co-signor or joint account holder, or otherwise responsible for the debt. A dead spouse’s debt also should not impact your credit standing unless you were responsible for it.
In case you are concerned about your liability for a spouse’s credit card debt, it is also a good idea to keep track of your credit reports. This would give you an idea about your credit standing and keep you informed on joint accounts.
The bottom line
You are generally not responsible for your spouse’s credit card debt unless you are a co-signor for the card or it is a joint account. However, state laws vary and divorce or the death of your spouse could also impact your liability for this debt.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your credit card-related questions.