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Is My New Spouse Responsible for My Medical Debt?

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Daniel Cohen
UpdatedMay 22, 2024
Key Takeaways:
  • Examine which spouse is responsible for debts incurred before marriage.
  • Review how living in a community property state can affect financial responsibility.
  • Keep assets separate, if one spouse is threatened with collections.

When I get married will my husband have to pay on any of my prior outstanding bills?

When I get married will my husband have to pay on any of my prior outstanding bills?

Thank you for your question about the debts you brought into your marriage and your spouse’s responsibility to pay them.

Is My Spouse Responsible for Debt I Incurred Before Marriage?

Two quick contradictory answers:

  • No, your spouse is not responsible for your pre-marital debt if you reside in a common law state
  • Maybe, if you reside in one of the 10 community property states
Community Property States
New Mexico
* Optional


Let us tackle the easy answer first. If you reside in one of the common law states, whatever debts you incurred before marriage will be your responsibility alone. Of course, if you apply for a joint mortgage or a loan, the lender will analyze both of your credit ratings.

Community Property States

The answer to your pre-marital debt question is more complicated if you live in a community property state.

In community property states, debts incurred during the marriage to benefit the community (your family), such as credit cards used to purchase items which will benefit both spouses, are considered community property, and are therefore owed by both spouses regardless of whether or not both spouses are listed on the credit card.

For example, if you lived in Washington State and incurred debt during your marriage, both you and your husband, as a marital community, could be sued to collect on the debt. If a judgment were obtained against you, both yours and your husband’s bank accounts could be levied to enforce the debt. The details of the "debt during marriage" rule vary by state.

Pre-marital debt in community property states is much more complicated. Some states (California, Idaho and Louisiana) allow a judgment creditor to collect a debt from both spouses’ community property, but not their separate property. Other states (New Mexico and Washington) allow a judgment creditor to collect from 50% of the spouses’ community property. Still other states — Nevada is one — place a very high burden on a judgment-creditor to show the non-contract-signing spouse has liability for the debt.

Follow the links in the "Community Property States" table to learn the pre-marital debt rules for your community property state.

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SSean Bertolino, Sep, 2014
Hi there. Am I able to pay for my wife's medical bills with HSA that were incurred in the previous tax year before we were married? She is currently covered under my HSA plan now but I just want to know if I could pay the old debt. Thanks a lot.
CChad, Sep, 2013
I have a possibly complicated question.

I live in Wisconsin, which is a community property state. My fiancé lives in Wyoming which is a common law state. Years ago I had a judgement brought against me for a civil suit, it's for a considerable sum of money. We are wondering if they will be able to come after her wages or assets for my old debt. She is joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 5 months, and we want to get married before she enlists, but we want to know how we can be sure we avoid anyone being able to come after her wages. We would like to know how to avoid any negative impact on her wages/credit. 1. If we get married in Wyoming will it make a difference as to getting married in Wisconsin? Even though I am a Wisconsin Resident and she is a Wyoming Resident, does where you get married make a difference? 2. If I become a resident of Wyoming before we get married will that avoid any problems (I have been living in Wyoming off and on for a year and can get the proper paperwork for a Wyoming Drivers License/ Residency) 3. Will a civil judgment not be considered the same as a credit card or bill collector, the winner of the judgment is not actively pursuing it. (It's been 3 years since I have heard anything).

Thanks for your time. I have asked several lawyers, but i have gotten several different answers. And just FYI, paying-off the debt is not an option as I do not have $440,000 laying around.

BBill, Sep, 2013
It doesn't surprise me your asking several lawyers these questions resulted in different answers. Unfortunately, the law is full of gray areas. Also, you have several moving parts here, and your lawyers may have made different assumptions about how your creditor(s) would react to your actions. My answer may not be any clearer than your others.

Let us assume the statute of limitations has not run out on your judgment. Let us also assume your creditors will pursue you as the law allows until the judgment expires. 1. In which state or country your marriage license is issued is a tiny piece of your residency puzzle. For example, you could as US citizens get married in Italy legally, and if you take the necessary steps, have your Italian marriage be recognized in the US. Short answer: Don't let this judgment determine where you marry. 2. In which state you reside matters far more than where you married. You did not mention which state court granted the judgment. Let us assume it was Wisconsin or someplace other than Wyoming. If you are a Wyoming resident, the judgment-creditor must domesticate the judgment in Wyoming, and then use Wyoming's remedies laws to collect the debt. Becoming a Wyoming resident will not allow you to dodge the debt, but it may slow the judgment-creditor down a bit.

As you pointed out, you and your spouse being Wyoming residents insulates her from collections activities because Wyoming follows common law rules when it comes to family law and spousal debt. 3. Judgments have limited lives. Each state has a different clock for judgments. See the article Statute of Limitations on Debt to learn how long your judgment may live.

One last thought: Some states allow judgment-creditors to renew a judgment. A lawyer in the state where your trial took place will explain that state's judgment-renewal rule.

AApril, Apr, 2013
If I have a substantial medical debt of about $25,000 from three years ago in Colorado how do I know when or how much they can garnish from my personal checking account?
BBill, May, 2013
A medical-debt creditor must obtain a judgment before it can levy your bank account or garnish your wages. With a judgment in hand, according to the collection laws in Colorado, the entire amount in a bank account with your name on it could be levied. Additionally, 25% of your wages could be garnished, after certain mandatory deductions are subtracted.

Check your credit report and see if there is a judgment against you. Look in the Public Records area of your report. If you don't have a judgment, make sure you respond to any summons you receive. If the creditors don't have your current address, you may not receive any notice of a lawsuit, but could first become aware of a judgment when a bank account is hit or your payroll department informs you that your wages will be garnished.

Also, when checking your credit report, note the date of last payment on the debt and pay attention to the statute of limitations on the debt. Your medical debt likely falls under the SOL for a written contract, which is 5 years in Colorado.
CCynthia, Apr, 2012
I live in Texas and was recently married. I own a home which only I claim homestead on; also, I am the only person named on loan docs and the deed. I am selling my house to purchase another. I applied for a loan using only my name and credit. My husband has tax debt incurred prior to our marriage. We file taxes separately. 1. Does his name need to be on the deed for the new house? 2. Can the IRS place a lien on the new house if the deed and loan is in my name?
BBill, Apr, 2012
1. A spouse in either a community property or common law state may own real property separately. You need not apply for a joint home loan, nor title the property in both spouse's names. It is common in community property states for lenders or title companies to require a spouse to sign a waiver that says basically, "Yes, I know my spouse is buying separate property." 2. You mentioned residing in Texas, which is a community property state. In community property states, an IRS tax lien for one spouse applies to all community assets, including the other spouse's wages and community property. If you buy the property you mentioned with community assets, then it is available to the IRS for a lien. See IRS documents Part 25. Special Topics, Chapter 18. Community Property, Section 4. Collection of Taxes in Community Property States and Part 25. Special Topics, Chapter 18. Community Property, Section 1. Basic Principles of Community Property Law for details.

Consult with a tax lawyer for a more detailed analysis of your situation, in particular if you are using your own separate property to pay for the home you are purchasing.

CClayton, Mar, 2012
My wife acquired a substantial amount of medical debt while living in Colorado years before we got married. We live in Wyoming and she is currently unemployed. Collections surprised her today and had her served by a sheriff. The paper she needs to fill out is asking for my information (name, address, phone number etc.) and it states she can be held in contempt if it isn't filled out completely, notarized and returned within 10 days. Does she need to include my information, and can collections come after me for her unpaid medical bills because we are married now? I have outstanding credit, but more important, I have a family to support and can't afford garnished wages. Thank you in advance for any advice.
BBill, Mar, 2012
The document you received raises several questions in my mind. To whom are you supposed to return the questionnaire? Did a Wyoming court issue the document? Has a judgment been entered against your spouse? Wyoming is a common law family law state, so I find it curious a court would demand financial information about a debtor's spouse.

Take the documents you received to a lawyer who has experience in civil law, or more specifically, consumer law. He or she will advise you if and how to complete the document in question. I realize a lawyer's time is not cheap, but if the document is one your spouse can ignore without legal recourse, then the lawyer's fee was well spent.