Two short answers:
- No, if you live in a state that follows common law
- Maybe, if you live in one of the 10 states following community property law
Let us discuss the common law states first. With the understanding that your state’s laws may trump the general rule, if a spouse did not co-sign the loan, that spouse is not a party to that transaction. As a consequence, the non-debtor spouse has no contract law or state law giving the non-debtor spouse liability if the signor defaults on the loan.
However, as I mentioned, your common law state may have different rules. Consult with a lawyer who specializes in family law in your state to get a more accurate answer that reflects your state’s laws and your particular facts.
Spousal Debt in Community Property States
Generally in community property states, debt incurred by a spouse during the marriage for the benefit of the family is considered a “community” debt, and therefore both spouses are responsible for repaying their debts.
Pre-marital debt is tricky to analyze because some community property states specifically exclude pre-marital debt from community debt. Pre-marital debt is considered separate. If you live in a community property state, follow the hyperlinks in the "Community Property States" table in this article to learn more about your state's rules for pre-marital debt.
Doctrine of Necessaries
Many, but not all states have a “doctrine of necessaries” rule. The doctrine on necessaries rule requires spouses to pay for each other’s necessities of life. The doctrine also applies to parents of minor children.
If your state has a doctrine of necessaries rule for spousal debt, you may have liability for your spouse’s debt, even if you were completely unaware of the expense. See the Bills.com article Doctrine of Necessaries Rules For Each State to learn the rules for your state.
Let us talk about the repossession. The primary problem with repossession is that the owner will likely be left owing a deficiency balance on the loan, meaning that your wife may still owe a significant amount of money to the lender even though she no longer has the vehicle.
When a vehicle is repossessed, the lender usually sells the car at auction, and applies the amount it receives at auction to the balance owed on the loan. The borrower is generally responsible for any amount of the loan which is not covered by the auction proceeds. The problem is that lenders usually sell repossessed vehicles for significantly less than the cars are actually worth, which can leave a borrower owing thousands of dollars for a vehicle the borrower no longer even owns.