5 things to know about marriage and debt

Even if wedding bells aren’t in your near future, you should work to pay off your debt before tying the knot.


Even if marriage isn’t in your immediate future, it’s wise to know the practical implications that go far beyond the ceremony and reception — like if your student loan debt or credit card will become the responsibility of your spouse.

“When you marry someone, the two of you merge many parts of your financial lives, too — both in everyday matters and legally speaking,” says Scott Smith, Vice President – Wealth Planning Strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors. “That warrants some frank discussions about how to handle your money together.”

Part of that discussion, even if it may be difficult to broach, should include the issue of debt, particularly if one of you enters the marriage with more financial liabilities than the other. “It’s important to understand your rights and responsibilities regarding your partner’s debts — and to realize how that can impact your lives together,” notes Smith.

With that in mind, here are some key things everyone should know about debt and marriage before tying the knot:

1. Debt you took on while you were single generally remains all yours. Regardless of the state in which you live, pre-marriage debt generally stays with the person who incurred it, says Smith. If you took out student loans for your education, your spouse isn’t responsible for them, even if you divorce or die. The same holds true of other debts, like credit card balances, car loans, and mortgages.

2. However, if you sign on to pre-marriage debt, you share it. Take the example of a refinanced home. If your spouse bought a house before you got married, but you refinanced it together and added your name to the title after tying the knot, you’re equally responsible for all of the mortgage indebtedness. The bank could come after you for payment if you divorce, your partner dies, or your spouse stops sending in the mortgage check, explains Smith. The same would be true if you signed on as a “joint owner” of your spouse’s existing credit card account, or cosigned for an auto loan or to consolidate debts.

3. Whether you share “marriage debt” depends on your locale. If you live in one of the 40 U.S. states that follow the “common law” system of property ownership, debt issues are fairly clear, says Smith. Each spouse may owe for “necessities” such as food or clothing. Generally speaking, however, when one of you takes on debt after you’re married, the spouse who signed the paperwork for the debt is responsible for it, even after a death or divorce. However, in the nine U.S. “community property” states, married couples usually are equally responsible for those debts entered into after marriage — no matter which spouse’s name is on the legal documents.

When you marry someone, the two of you merge many parts of your financial lives, too — both in everyday matters and legally speaking.

— Scott Smith, Vice President – Wealth Planning Strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors

4. Your credit ratings don’t marry when you do. For better or for worse, you and your spouse have separate credit histories and ratings. They’re connected to your Social Security number and stay that way. “If your spouse has a terrible credit rating due to problem debt issues, marrying you won’t improve it,” explains Smith. On the other hand, your partner’s less-than-stellar rating won’t bring your score down, either. This is worth considering carefully if you plan to apply for credit together in the future, such as to buy a home. “It’s not a bad idea to agree to share credit reports before you marry, just to have a full understanding of your financial picture,” suggests Smith.

5. Some things may be best kept separate. Even in good marriages between two responsible financial partners, Smith says it can sometimes be simpler to keep credit cards in your own names. “It’s much easier to split your debt if something were to happen, such as divorce or a death,” he says. If you and your spouse want to use the same credit account for simplicity, one of you can be the official account owner, and add the spouse as an “authorized user.” The authorized user isn’t legally responsible for the debt, and you can remove him or her from the account if you ever need to do so, notes Smith. “Realize, however, that as the account owner, you’re consciously allowing someone to incur debt for which you will ultimately be responsible — so remain vigilant.”

Whatever your situation, marriage presents a lot of choices. Should you combine finances? How do you set a budget for your new family? Contact your Financial Advisor to help you sort through the options and start your new life together on the right foot.