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The wedding was beautiful. The honeymoon created lifelong memories. Now, you return home to settle in to your new life and into your new reality.

Before you took the walk down the aisle to wed your new spouse, you were debt-free. You had low or even no credit card balances, and you were on the right path financially.

Things are a lot different now. You’ve married into debt: Credit cards, student loans, the debt you didn’t have, your spouse does have. How do you handle your new spouse’s debt, and how does it affect you?

Marriage and Debt: Mine, Yours, or Ours?

One of the first questions newlyweds who marry into debt ask is: Am I responsible for my new spouse’s debt? It all depends on the state in which you live, whether it is a community state, and whether the debt was incurred during your marriage.

In community property states – Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin – you may be liable for your spouse’s debt if the debt was incurred during the marriage.

In non-community states and when you did not sign for the debt, you won’t be liable for the debt. Check your state’s laws to find out where your liability – or non-liability – lies.Learn how to work together to tackle your spouse's debt

But, even if you aren’t legally liable for your spouse’s debt, how can you handle it? Will you help pay for it, or do you believe that it’s your spouse’s responsibility to pay off debt incurred before you married on his or her own?

Note: My personal feelings with debt and marriage now is handling it together. My husband was completely debt free when we married and I was ready to work to my car and student loans by myself, but he was encouraged me to tackle it as a team. -Elle

Combining Debts and Income

If you decide to help your spouse pay off his or her debt, you can work together toward financial stability. You have several options for making the debt more manageable.

If you have a significant amount of credit card debt, you may want to consolidate your debt. Be sure you work with a reputable debt consolidation company.

Credit card companies are often willing to work with consumers to help make their monthly payments more affordable, another option for handling and paying down your debt.

While some companies, like Sallie Mae, no longer offer student loan consolidation, you can still consolidate your student loan debt through federal programs. If your spouse has significant student loan debt, consolidation may be able to save you a lot of money each month.

In addition to consolidating debt, create a budget, cutting costs where feasible. For example, you may be able to turn off the landline in lieu of using only your cell phone, or you can cancel your cable until your debt is more manageable.

Separating Finances

If you believe the latter, you have several options for ensuring that your spouse pays his or her debt alone. (Your spouse may also want to consider debt consolidation and living with a budget, too.)

Avoid opening a joint account until the debt is paid off; that way, you don’t have to worry about paying money toward the debt.

You may also want to split the bills to ensure both spouses are contributing equally. Some spouses opt for paying for the rent or mortgage while the other spouse pays utilities.

Find a happy medium that works for both of you.

Ideally, whether you believe your spouse should pay for his or her own debt or you believe teamwork is the best solution, your best bet is to come up with how you’re going to deal with your spouse’s debt before you walk down the aisle.

George Gallagher is a personal finance and education blogger.  He works with cuStudentLoans and is committed to helping students find affordable private student loans.

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9 comments add your comment

  1. It was easy to figure out when my wife and I got married. We both married right out of college with no debt. We only had $30 between us, but all debt acquired ended up being joint debt. Don’t know how I would feel if things had been different. They weren’t so haven’t wasted any time thinking about it.

  2. Regardless of what you decide, you need to have this conversation. A friend of a friend is getting married soon. He was awkwardly talking about his fiancee’s debt the other day. He wasn’t sure how this would be dealt with. I don’t think it matters how you deal with it, as long as you have a plan.

    • I completely agree- having the conversation is vital. Each couple has to figure out their own path.

  3. We both had our own individual debts. Mine debts included credit cards and a loan, his was a car loan and one credit card. We pay them individually at the moment, but hoping to tackle them as a team once we get more money rolling in.

  4. It is definitely something that needs to be talked about before doing much of anything. Not being able to move on it all that fast is one thing, but not having a pay down (or keep under control plan) at the very minimum will be disastrous in the future

  5. I like the idea of combining everything. In it together as a team. Just have the discussions early in the relationship and be up front about financial debts and obligations. If two people have different sets of finances, should it matter that much? Perhaps it’s financial compatiblity, in terms of habits and values, that matters the most. Anyway, bottom line is tackling things as a team, as long as both people are genuiniely committed for the long haul, seems like a great way to go. I’m sure some folks might totally disagree with this. It’s all up to the couple, no right or wrong way I suppose.

    Now, if people marry later in life, I can see things being a bit different – as people bring in assets and potentially bigger obligations into the mix.

  6. Thanks everyone for the feedback. I definitely agree with MD about having the conversation. Everyone has a different view of marriage and if you’re not on the same page, it can be a difficult process.

  7. My wife wants to consolidate her student debts. Since we’ve filed taxes jointly, I’d have to list income and sign the paperwork.
    Does this make me liable for the debt as a loan cosigner?