Wife tied to husband’s credit card debt?

Dear Debt Adviser,
Although I am debt-free, I married a man a year ago who has nearly $40,000 in credit card debt. We are attempting to pay this off and have eliminated five credit cards, so far. But, my question is: Am I responsible for this mess in the event of his death? We are 66 and 71 respectively, and he has cancer. I have not changed my name legally, but I do use his name in social situations.
— Melanie

Dear Melanie,
Your letter confirms for me that love knows no age limits. Not that 66 is old, but that an obviously cautious 66-year-old would first marry the guy and then ask if she was responsible for his debts! Anyway, congratulations on your marriage and don’t worry about his debts. From the way you worded your question, I believe your new husband had the $40,000 in credit card debt before you married him. As long as that is the case and you have not been added as a joint owner to any of his accounts, you do not have any responsibility to repay his debt in the event of his death. However, if your husband has an estate, his creditors upon his death could attempt to collect what is owed them from any assets included in his estate.

The fact that you use your husband’s name socially will not have any effect on your financial responsibility for his credit cards. Even if you had legally changed your name to your husband’s last name, the only way you would be responsible for repayment of the credit card debt he accumulated before your marriage is if you were added as a responsible party to his accounts.

Now that we have that out of the way, I’d like to give you some advice on future debts. If you live in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and some instances Alaska), any new debts acquired by him will be yours, too. So, a conversation with him about how at 71 he came to put the $40,000 on credit cards may be in order.

I’m pleased that you two are working to pay off his debts. I firmly believe that people should pay what they owe. However, I’m just a little concerned because you told me he is 71 and has cancer, and you are concerned about what happens after his death. In addition to an obligation to his creditors, he also has an obligation to you and perhaps other members of his family. If he has a limited time (don’t we all) to get his affairs in order, you may want to consider balancing your financial and familial obligations.

Besides working on paying down his debt, I suggest that you at least look into other alternatives including a debt management plan with a nonprofit credit counseling agency, a debt settlement offer using an attorney and a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

In a debt management plan, your husband would pay less in interest charges and have a plan to pay off the balances in full within three to five years.

If your husband believes he may die before he can pay his debts and can’t afford to just write a $40,000 check, and he wants to pay what he can afford, he might consider hiring an attorney to work with his creditors to settle his debts or advise him of the pluses and minuses of bankruptcy. The stress involved for both of you in dealing with a potentially terminal illness is plenty. You don’t need the added stress of credit card debt hanging over your heads.

Melanie, however you and your husband decide to proceed, I hope you enjoy your new married lives and wish you both the best.

Good luck!

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