What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours, right? That old adage applies to many things in life once you get married — and that includes debt. Depending on where you live, when you get married, your spouse’s debt may become your own responsibility as well.
As of 2012, under community property law, there are nine community property states that require you to take on your spouse’s debt incurred going forth from your marriage. These nine states are California, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Louisiana, Arizona, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Texas. Note that community property law does allow you to sign an agreement with your new husband or wife explaining that your debts are to be treated separately.
If you reside in the other 41 states, which are called common law states, you’re not required to take on your husband or wife’s debt before marriage, and are able to easily evade taking on that debt after getting married. The only exception to this is if the debt was sustained due to joint household expenses, whether it was food, clothing, housing, child care or other asset.
However, whether or not it’s by law, as you become one spiritually, your debts may also become shared, depending on what your own beliefs are. Take it from Trent Hamm, founder and contributor of The Simple Dollar.
“Even though [my wife and I] were keeping our debts separate, the reality was that the consequences of those debts were shared. If the consequences are shared, then it follows that the responsibility for paying off the debts ought to be shared as well,” he explains. “Once you acknowledge the debts as essentially shared, the optimal way to get rid of those debts is to consider them all together. It should no longer matter who has the worst debt. What matters is that the worst debt is the one that you both focus on first.”
“When my wife and I reached this conclusion in 2006, we began to really work together to focus on all of the debts either one of us had,” Hamm continues. “It didn’t matter whose name was on the credit card or on the car title. The consequences of those debts were shared, so we both benefit when any of those debts go away.”
So if you do decide to take on each other’s debt, here are some of the best ways to tackle this new responsibility:
Be open and honest - Even before you get married, it’s important to be completely open about any debt you’ve incurred, how long it will take to pay it off and if that is even feasible. It’s also essential to not hide any spending habits or splurges from each other. When you get married, you’re working toward things together, and when you’re dishonest about your spending habits, you disrupt the chance of arriving at a mutual debt-free future.
Split the bills - “You may want to split the bills to ensure both spouses are contributing equally,” says George Gallagher, a personal finance and education blogger. “Some spouses opt for paying for the rent or mortgage while the other spouse pays utilities.” If there are significant income differences between the two of you, divide the bills into portions that make sense to you as a couple. For example, maybe the person who makes more money pays for rent or mortgage, while the other pays for groceries and gas. It’s all about finding a balance that works for you.
Determine the right time for a joint account - Many people deem getting married as the time to create a joint account, but it’s up to you when to do it (if that’s something that interests you). While some couples choose to get a joint account the day after their wedding, others may want to wait until all debt is paid off to do so. However, some may find a joint account easier for handling the shared debt. It’s important to find out what works best for you as a couple.
While it may seem unromantic, many husbands and wives share everything once they get married — even debt. The key is to find a happy medium that works for both of you.
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