Separate in marriage, but joined in debt?

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Dear Debt Adviser,
My 83-year-old father lives in California, and has been separated from his 50-year-old wife (my mother) for the past 11 years, but never filed for divorce. They are still married, but living apart. My father has about $50,000 in credit card debt, some cards with just his name and some with both their names. My mother has about $8,000 in credit card debt only in her name. Her concern is that if he dies, since he is much older, will she be liable to pay for his debt under the above conditions? They both don’t own any assets.
— Juan

Dear Juan,
Wow, your father has a very large debt burden. The minimum payment on $50,000 in credit card debt would be approximately $1,000 per month at a conservative interest rate estimate of 12 percent (the actual interest is likely higher). I don’t blame your mother for being concerned about ultimately becoming responsible for this debt.

My recommendation is that your mother first get free copies of her credit reports and determine on which of your father’s accounts she is named as a responsible party. Doing so will give her a good idea of where she stands. If the accounts show her as a joint owner, she may have cause for concern. On the other hand, if she is an authorized user, then she should be out of danger of having to pay.

My question back to you is: What state does your mother live in? This is relevant to your mother’s financial responsibility because of community property laws in some states. Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin and Puerto Rico are known as community property states. Any debts incurred during their marriage and their residency in those states are considered jointly owed, regardless of who spent the money or why. Since your dad lives in California, any of your mom’s debts will be his should she die first. If your mom lives outside of a community property state, she should only be financially responsible for those accounts where she is named on the account as a responsible party.

My experience with couples who have split up is that any solution involving both of them is likely to be complicated and will take some time to work out. My suggestion to you is to not take ownership of this mess. Give your parents the facts and then let them figure it out. You getting in the middle may just prolong any resolution.

Normally I don’t recommend credit card life insurance. But in your father’s case it might be something to look into. For a relatively low additional monthly payment, he can insure the balance that he owes with his credit card issuers. The chief virtue of credit card life insurance is that it’s easy to get. If he has a pre-existing condition, that might prevent him from getting life insurance and, considering his age, credit insurance might be worth a look. If it looks like my first three solutions won’t work out, then this one might. It might even be worth your mom paying for it to avoid a problem in the future.

I hope that your father will have the opportunity to take care of the debt, but should he pass away before the debt is paid, and your mother does become responsible for the debt, she may have no other choice but to file for bankruptcy. Bankruptcy protection is provided for a reason, and for those persons who lack the means to pay a large debt, it is a necessary avenue to clear the slate and start over.

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