Can You Be Required to Pay Your Spouse's Debts?
Community property is a marital property scheme used by nine states. Alaska allows married couples to choose either community property or a community property when determining ownership of marital assets. Community property laws vary, and no two state laws are the same. When it comes to your owing your spouse’s debt, it is important for you to understand your state’s unique rules, and not the general rules.
Also, when it comes to owing your spouse’s debt, a rule called the doctrine of necessaries, may cause you to have liability for your spouse’s debt, even if you didn’t know about the debt. Be sure to understand both your state community property and doctrine of necessaries laws before you decide you do not have to pay your spouse’s debt.
Community Property at a Glance
The basic principal behind community property is a married couple is treated as a “marital community,” which operates as a single entity for many legal purposes.
For example, if married spouses who reside in a community property state buy a house, it is presumed to be owned by the marital community, even if only one spouse’s name is listed on the deed to the property.
Similarly, if a one spouse incurs a debt, such as a credit card, and the charges benefit the household, that debt may be treated as being owed by the marital community, not just by one spouse. However, not all community property states follow this rule, so be sure to learn your state’s rules before you assume you owe your spouse’s debt.
In all community property states, spouses are allowed to own separate assets and incur separate debts. As mentioned, courts in community property states assume any property purchased or any debts incurred during the marriage were for the benefit of the community and thus are community property.
Let us say you live in a community property state and a creditor files a lawsuit against you for a breach of contract relating to the default on a credit card in your spouse’s name. As mentioned, in some community property states, the spouse of the defendant has liability under community property laws. The creditor has the option of file a lawsuit against the defendant’s spouse. If the spouse of the debtor is sued, and the state allows spouses to classify some debts as non-community and this particular debt qualifies, then you could challenge your liability for the debt in court and avoid a judgment.
Regarding credit card debt, generally creditors do not file lawsuits against the spouses of credit card holders in community property states as a matter of course even in states where this is allowed. This is because credit card issuers may believe they face a more difficult case by filing suit against both spouses. If you live in a community property state and your spouse defaults on his or her own separate credit card, you should be aware that the chances of your being named as a defendant are slim but real nevertheless. If a creditor obtains a judgment against you, the creditor may be able to garnish your wages, levy your bank accounts, and/or place liens on your property.
This discussion looks at a very narrow slice of community property law. To learn more about how community property treats property acquired during marriage, pensions, and divorce, see Origin and Historical Development of the Community Property System (PDF).
Learn More About Your State’s Community Property Law
Follow the hyperlinks to your state in the Community Property States table above. If your state is not listed, consult with a lawyer in your state who has family law experience. If you cannot afford a lawyer, see the Bills.com Where to Find No-Cost Legal Aid if You Have Low or No Income page to find legal aid organizations in your area.
Doctrine of Necessaries
Spouses living in community property states must learn their state’s community property law and the doctrine of necessaries to understand their liability for a spouse’s debt. Doctrine of necessaries law is not part of community property law, but it may be very important to you.
The doctrine of necessaries gives creditors a right to collect a certain type of debt from a debtor’s spouse or the parent of a minor child. Some states repealed their doctrine of necessaries laws. To learn more about Louisiana’s doctrine of necessaries rule, read the Bills.com article Doctrine of Necessaries Rules For All States.