Marriage and Debt: Who is Responsible?

by Emily Guy Birken on July 6, 2011

Dealing with Debt and Marriage Responsibly

How are you dealing with the debt in your marriage?

Marriage is not just about two people creating a new family together; it’s also the beginning of a new and lifelong financial partnership.

Unfortunately, many couples forget about the “business” side of marriage while they’re planning their weddings and lives together.

It’s very easy to assume that the money stuff will just take care of itself. But that kind of assumption can lead to fights, stress, and even divorce.

In particular, debt can be a major marriage-wrecker. Whether you entered into your marriage with debt or you have incurred debt since the wedding day, you and your spouse must be on the same page and working as a team to deal with it. Otherwise, your individual debt can divide you. Here are some tips and information on how to deal with debt so it doesn’t hurt your marriage.

Dealing with Debt from Before Marriage

Suppose you enter into marriage with some substantial student loans or credit card debt. In most instances, the individual debt legally remains the responsibility of the individual, even after marriage. However, even though that is how the law views the debt, it is probably better for couples to look at it as “our” debt. Even if each member of the couple keeps separate accounts, the debt can still become a communal problem. Treating the debt as one individual’s problem is a recipe for resentment at best and an invitation for secrecy and lying at worst.

The first order of business is to be open and honest with each other about debt—and it’s never too late to start. Have a sit-down talk where you lay out all of your financial information: good, bad and ugly. You cannot deal with what you don’t know exists.

From there, you will need to develop your debt elimination plan. How long will it take you to pay off your loans? What can you do to speed up your pay-off? What are your shared financial goals? Knowing how you plan to answer all of these questions will help you both feel as though you’re a team.

These will not be one-time conversations. Communication is key to making sure that debt does not overwhelm your marriage. Revisiting pay-off strategies will be a regular part of your marriage as your circumstances change, and these conversations will also help you to strengthen your marriage.

Dealing with New Debt

In most states, the law dictates that debt incurred by one spouse during marriage is considered the responsibility of both spouses. In the event of divorce, that means that both individuals will be responsible for paying off the loan that only one person took.

Again, the key to dealing with new debt in marriage is keeping the lines of communication open. Both spouses should feel comfortable discussing purchases and major life events prior to when they occur—so that there are no unpleasant financial surprises.

This can be difficult if one spouse is risk-averse and conservative while the other spouse is more willing to take chances. One way of dealing with these differences in money styles is to go to a financial planner, who can help the couple decide how best to handle old and new debts.

If you have already incurred some individual debt in your marriage, come clean about it (if you haven’t already!) and start making plans for how to eliminate it. Even if you made your decision to incur the debt individually, you have to invite your spouse into your financial decisions. That is the only way to make sure your debt doesn’t kill your love.

The bottom line is that money can put a terrible strain on a marriage—particularly if it’s something no one is willing to talk about. Be open with your spouse about money, or it could lead to even more uncomfortable conversations later on.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Young July 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Great post Emily! I 100% agree that it has to be viewed as “our” debt. When you choose to get married, you choose to do things as a team and if you continue the “his” and “hers” attitude, you are setting up for disaster. Honestly, you should have just stayed dating if you weren’t ready to make that commitment.

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Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager July 7, 2011 at 7:49 pm

I think once you get married you share everything, including debt. Regardless of when it was incurred.

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