Am I responsible for my wife’s credit card debt?

In most states, you are only responsible for the debt that you sign for. If you are not listed on the account, then the debt is not in your name. However, if you live in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin), you are considered a co-owner of the debt, regardless of whether or not your name is on the account. The debt will affect your credit and you are legally responsible for it as if your name was on the account. If you are not living in a community property state, the debt is not technically your responsibility and it should not affect your credit score if you are not an authorized user.

However, it is difficult to be in a marriage where one person carries significantly higher debt than the other. If you buy a home together, your spouse’s credit score could seriously hurt your chances of getting a good mortgage rate. Additionally, if one of the partners spends a large portion of his or her income on interest, finance charges, and debt repayment, there are less resources available to contribute to shared expenses and long term financial planning.

If you and your spouse have different levels of “debt comfort,” you are not alone. This is a very common problem in marriage, and there are a number of avenues you can pursue to help get the both of you on the same financial page.

One is to consider nonprofit credit counseling to address any outstanding credit card debt. InCharge Debt Solutions offers budget counseling, financial education resources and debt management plans to help structure repayment. Participating in a program can also lead to reduced interest rates and waived finance charges.

Marriage, ideally, is a lifetime commitment. You can’t escape your spouse’s financial boat, whether you are leisurely cruising toward retirement, or frantically paddling to stay afloat. The good news is that two are better than one, and if one of the partners possesses more financial discipline, the two of you have a better chance of meeting your financial goals. But you can’t start until you get honest with each other.

Honesty is the first step to facing credit card debt. You must be honest with yourself and your spouse. Add up the total amount owed, no matter how painful, and make a plan for repayment. Ask for help if you are overwhelmed.

If you are the spouse with the debt, here are some steps to get started:

  1. Add up the total amount owed.
  2. Review your interest rates. Call your creditors and ask for rate reductions. There is no guarantee that they will give you a reduction, but making a request sometimes yields good results.
  3. Cut up your cards.
  4. Make a budget and figure out the maximum amount you can pay each month toward your debt. Calculate how long it will take to pay off your debt using our credit card payoff calculator.
  5. Ask your spouse for help. If he or she can contribute even $50 or $100/month, project how much faster you can pay off the total debt.