How to Talk to your Spouse About Debt

Debt & MarriageIn our counseling sessions, we often see clients who do not want their spouses to find out about their debts. 

We’ve seen people rent post office boxes just to have a secret way to receive their monthly statements. That means they’re spending money to hide their debt rather than putting every extra cent toward paying it off.

We also have seen older clients who have their credit card bills sent to their grown kids’ addresses, in order to hide credit card debt from their spouse. 

These situations come about in various ways. 

Sometimes, one partner has secretly been using credit cards without his/her spouse’s knowledge and has gotten in too deep. Once they feel things have gotten too far out of hand, they don’t want to face their spouse’s judgment.

In some marriages, one person in the relationship is responsible for managing all of the family’s finances. If debt gets out of control, they feel they’ve failed in their household role.

There are some relationships where one partner had debt prior to the marriage, and they never did tell their spouse the full story before getting together.

It’s tough to live with a secret, especially one you are keeping from your husband or wife. If you’re afraid to come clean about the debts that have built up without your partner’s knowledge, that may signal some other problem in the relationship. If debt and money issues are just one part of a pattern of issues between you and your spouse, you should seek some kind of marriage counseling so you can address all of the issues affecting your relationship.

If money and debt are the only serious problems you have, then you have to plan to have an in-depth conversation about your financial and debt situation. We do not offer legal advice of any kind. We recommend seeing a qualified attorney for help with legal issues.

Understanding joint and individual debts

Before diving into the situation, it’s helpful to understand the nature of joint and individual debts. Here are some of the most common questions we get:

Do you inherit your spouse’s debt when you get married?

The answer to this is generally no. Any debt you had prior to getting married is yours, and your spouse isn’t obligated to pay it, and their pre-existing debts are their own. 

Things change quite a bit once you get married, and in many states any debts incurred after the wedding are shared, even if the debt was initiated by only one partner. But when it comes to debts that existed before the marriage, both partners are responsible for their own debts.

One thing to be careful of is using an individual account for the “joint benefit” of the married couple. If your spouse had a pre-existing account that belonged only to them, then you have no responsibility to repay it. But if they use that same account after you’re married and they use it for the joint benefit of the family, then a court might find that you are liable for half of the debt incurred. 

If you’re going to use pre-existing accounts after you’re married, then be very careful to only use them for individual expenses. Otherwise, you might as well formally add your spouse to the account.

Can my spouse’s credit score affect mine?

Generally, marriage does not impact your individual credit score. Marital status is simply not included in your credit report data. 

Even if you apply for joint credit together after getting married, each credit score will be pulled and considered, but there is no joint marital credit report or score for lenders to consider.

Once you do take on a joint debt, then the use and repayment of that debt will affect both of your credit scores. So if a joint account goes unpaid without your knowledge, your score will go down, as will your spouses.

Things like credit utilization and total amounts owed will impact your score, but each partner might see a different impact, depending on how many accounts are in each person’s name, and how much total debt each partner carries. If you have more individual accounts than your partner, your credit score will be impacted differently.  

Am I responsible for my spouse’s debts after death?

A theme you may have picked up so far is that when the debts were incurred matters a lot. Any individual debts acquired by your spouse prior to marriage remain theirs. If your spouse passes away, you do not have any responsibility for those debts. 

Any joint debts taken on as a couple are your responsibility, no matter what your spouse’s status. After your spouse’s death, nothing changes, because you were always responsible for joint debts.

A trickier subject is individual debts taken on after the marriage begins. It’s possible for one partner to borrow money individually while married, and the spouse to be exempt from responsibility, but this depends on several factors. 

First you’d have to be in a common law state (that includes 41 of the states), and the debt would have to be an individual debt, not a household debt. And some kinds of debt would still be owed, depending on state law. (I.e., in some states, you’d be responsible for medical debts your spouse incurred before dying.)

What if my spouse declares bankruptcy?

It’s possible for one partner in a marriage to declare bankruptcy, but not the other. In these cases, any individual debts owed by the person declaring bankruptcy would be satisfied, and that person’s property may be liquidated to satisfy those debts.

None of this impacts their spouse, unless they have jointly held debts and co-own property together. If there are jointly-held debts, then the spouse who doesn’t declare bankruptcy is still responsible to repay them, and only the spouse declaring bankruptcy is exempt from repaying.

Generally, the more co-mingled your debts and property are, the more likely it is that you’d need to file bankruptcy jointly. 

Also be aware that in the 9 community property states, all debts and property in a marriage are always considered co-owned, regardless of which partner took out the loan.

 

How to confess debt to your spouse

When you’re ready to talk to your spouse, start by getting organized. Be ready to show your partner all of the bills and obligations you have, including your full credit card debt.

Be full partners

If you are solely responsible for paying all of the bills, and this has led to your current problems, tell your partner that you need a little more help managing the family finances. That might only mean that you and your spouse sit together once per month and go over your monthly bills and evaluate your status. Just keeping both partners fully in the loop will help prevent a situation where one of you is keeping a secret and is afraid to come clean with the other.

Even if some of the debts you’re discussing are yours alone to repay, your spouse can be supportive and help keep you on task. Just knowing that they are there to listen and offer advice might help you stay on track. 

It’s a simple matter of “two heads are better than one”, so make it clear you’re not asking your spouse to come in and solve the problem, only to help you figure out a way forward.

Stick to the numbers

Get some budget sheets (like our Power of Paycheck Planning Guide and tracking sheets, both free downloads) and talk to your spouse about preparing a household budget together. Then both of you will know what you can afford, what you need to set aside for debts, and you can create a plan together to pay off debts and get back on the right track.

The real solution will involve math, and careful planning. Keep this phase of the discussion focused on the numbers–how much will you need to set aside, how much spending can you cut, how much extra money can you earn–and come up with a solution that works mathematically. 

Once you have sketched out a plan and know what you have to do to achieve the goal of debt elimination, you can move one to a deeper discussion.

Assess your values

Now is a time to talk about shared priorities and values. What kinds of things are most important to you, individually and as a couple? Where are you willing to change or sacrifice for the sake of your marriage?

Keep your communication positive and forward-looking. Once your debts are knocked out, then you’ll want to have a common goal to save toward. Make this process something positive in your marriage. The conversation shouldn’t focus entirely on financial failure-you should have a shared picture of what financial success looks like, and an equal commitment to reaching it.

Avoid quick-fix ideas like refinancing or consolidation loans—these are not realistic options in today’s economy. Using credit cards is the kind of quick-fix that got you into debt trouble, so don’t compound your problems by taking out new loans. 

Hiding credit card debt from your spouse

Sometimes, the reason you’re scared to discuss these matters with your spouse is justified. If you’re in danger of domestic violence, then please call 1.800.799.SAFE [ 1 (800) 799-7233 ] as soon as you safely can. You can also visit https://www.thehotline.org to chat via the internet. 

 

If you’re in a bad situation, whether it’s an abusive relationship or a marriage that you know is doomed, you might be deliberately trying to hide your financial moves from your spouse. Your best bet in this circumstance is to get help from a divorce attorney now. Let them guide you as you prepare to separate as cleanly as possible. It’s not a good idea to build up a large savings account without your partner’s knowledge, as they will be entitled to half of it in a divorce settlement. 

Even if you’re not ready to make the leap to divorce, an attorney can lay out the best course of action for you. 

Final thoughts

Every month, our debt counselors help thousands of families and individuals address their financial problems. We know it’s possible for anyone to work his or her way out of debt, no matter how difficult it might seem at first. That task is a lot easier in a marriage if both partners are fully on board. 

If you’re hiding credit card debt from your spouse, you’re damaging your marriage. Set aside time to talk to your significant other about your situation; let him or her be a partner to you when you need help most.

For more information, check out our free Couples & Money workshop materials, or call us today for free, confidential credit counseling.

Speak to our certified Financial Coaches to review all of your options and discuss best strategies for getting out of debt.Speak to our certified Financial Coaches to review all of your options and discuss best strategies for getting out of debt.

About The Author

Melinda Opperman is an exceptional educator who lives and breathes the creation and implementation of innovative ways to motivate and educate community members and students about financial literacy. Melinda joined credit.org in 2003 and has over two decades of experience in the industry.