Know fiance’s finances when saying ‘I do’

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Dear Debt Adviser,
I am getting married very soon in California. My future husband has medical insurance in his name only. He has a heart condition which makes him go to the emergency room at least twice a year. My question is, am I responsible for his medical bills as well or only if he doesn’t pay them? Will the creditors go after me to pay his bills even if I’m laid off at the moment? Please get back to me ASAP! Thank you so much!
— Amanda

Dear Amanda,
I hope this column reaches you before your big day! Second thoughts are better than no thoughts.  Clearly, a warning bell has sounded louder than wedding bells in your mind, and I’m glad you wrote before the marriage, not after. You have a lot going on just before your wedding. You are laid off from your job, and your future husband apparently has some medical bills that are causing you concern. If you are planning traditional vows, you already have some knowledge of what it means to commit to the “in sickness and in health” and “in good times and bad” portion of the wedding ceremony.

California is a community property state. For a couple getting married there, once you become husband and wife, the income that you earn and the debts that you accrue from that point forward are shared equally between the two of you, regardless of who earns what or who spends what. Specifically, what that means for you, Amanda, is that any medical bills your future husband incurs after you are married become equally your responsibility to pay.

However, the medical bills that have accumulated before your marriage takes place are solely the financial responsibility of your future husband, and the creditors cannot “legally” come after you for payment. Of course, that doesn’t mean they might not ask you to pay!

Realistically, once you are married, you will be joining your two lives together financially and otherwise. Even though you may not be financially responsible, you will be intimately involved with the person who is. In other words, if there is no money to pay them, the medical bills that need to be paid and the stress that accompanies being in debt will affect your life, too.

I recommend that you and your future husband have a serious, realistic conversation about finances and goals. If I were you, I would want to be assured that the two of you will have sufficient income to handle all the out-of-pocket medical expenses associated with your fiance’s heart condition, not just the emergency room charges that it appears you will have each year. Those costs need to be factored into your annual expenses just as you would pay the rent or mortgage.

You mentioned that your future husband has health insurance on himself but didn’t mention your own situation. Check to see if adding yourself to his plan will cost less than the COBRA policy I hope you have from your last employer. If you are uninsured, I strongly urge you to consider getting on his policy as soon as you are married.

Another concern I have is your remark about creditors going after you to pay his bills. This makes me think that he is already behind on some bills, and in collections. When you have that conversation about finances, be sure to share information about what each of you owes and earns and, you can tell him I said to do this, you should look at each other’s credit report.

I believe you will feel much better about your future married life if you have a good idea of how your finances will be managed. You may have bared your hearts to one another, but until you do the same for your finances, you are not ready to say “I do!”

Good luck!

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