Wife not married to spouse’s old debts


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Dear Debt Adviser,
Can my husband’s creditors come after me and my assets for recovery of his debt? We’re newly married within the past 5 1/2 months.
— Sue

Dear Sue,
Somebody didn’t do their homework! I never cease to be amazed by the lack of even the most basic investigation into the pasts of soon-to-be-weds.

If he was a vehicle, you’d have gotten a Carfax report or have a mechanic check him out. If he was a seller on eBay, you’d have checked his reviews and scrutinized any negatives. But for something so much more significant, like a marriage, many of us take a person at face value with no credit check.

This may be your lucky day, as it seems you have some good news. The debt your husband brought into your marriage is his and his alone.

In most states, your finances start to mingle only after you become man and wife and open joint accounts together or both sign for a loan. However, in so-called community-property states, you are both liable for any debt that either of you takes on after marriage.

Community-property states include Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and the territory of Puerto Rico. Alaska also allows married couples to opt in to community-property status.

Legal fine points notwithstanding, if your new husband’s accounts are delinquent and collectors are calling, some of the less reputable of these companies may argue you are responsible. Don’t believe them. You are not liable.

Worried that financial mistakes have ruined your credit? Check your credit score for free at myBankrate.

Calls from a collector are 1 of my 7 warning signs that you are in financial difficulty. Please don’t ignore or discount this serious warning.

I suggest that the 2 of you have a detailed discussion about your goals, finances and how you are going to keep this from happening again. Begin by writing down your mutual financial goals, both short-term and long-term, and determine the financial moves you need to make to reach those goals.

Avoid taking on his debt by transferring some or all of it to your own accounts or opening new accounts in your name. Even though the 2 of you have become 1 couple, you need to protect your own credit rating. The debts he brought to the marriage are still his responsibility.

As part of your talk, the 2 of you should decide how you will use credit going forward. You don’t say how your husband acquired his debt or the amount of his debt, but I would get assurances from him that he is working diligently to pay it off and is not currently adding to the balances.

Some couples work together and share the responsibilities of paying monthly bills and other financial tasks. Other couples find that 1 or the other of them is much better at financial matters, and they turn all the responsibility over to that partner.

There is no right or wrong way to handle finances as a couple, but I suggest that even if only 1 partner handles the reins, the other should be kept informed. All major money decisions should be made together.

Congratulations on your wedding. Every marriage has its bumps and you may turn out to be lucky that this bump came up so soon. This way you can deal with it now and then move on to “happily ever after.”

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