Dear Liz: My spouse has extremely high credit card debt. All cards are in her name only. Where do I stand legally if she dies or we divorce? What can a person do about such uncontrollable abuse of credit cards? The interest alone is horrific, but she pays it.
Answer: If you live in a community property state and don’t have a prenuptial agreement, debts incurred during marriage are typically considered owed by both parties (even if there’s only one name on the credit card). Community property states include California, Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
In other states, debts incurred by one spouse are usually that spouse’s responsibility alone, unless the money was used to buy family necessities such as food or shelter. If you divorce, she probably would be responsible for these separate debts. If she dies, creditors could go after her separate property and may be able to go after her half of any jointly held property.
The rules vary enough by state that you’d be smart to consult an attorney about your potential liability.
Wherever you live, though, this debt is affecting your union and your future together. The money she’s paying in interest isn’t available for other purposes, such as saving for retirement or your children’s educations, plus it’s clearly causing tension between you. If you want your marriage to succeed, you should invest in sessions with a marriage counselor and a fee-only financial planner.