Good News for Responsible Spouses: You Aren’t Responsible for the Other Spouse’s Debts

by Craig Andresen, Minneapolis, MN, Bankruptcy Attorney

August 31, 2009

One of the most enduring myths about the law is that spouses are legally responsible for each other’s debts — but it simply isn’t true, not even in a community property state.  Why, then, do so many people seem to “know” this is so, when it’s just a myth?

The answer probably lies in the nature of marital property ownership in the nine community property states in the U.S.: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin.  In these states, a creditor of either spouse may pursue property owned by the spouses, and almost all property is jointly owned by both spouses in community property states.

Regardless of the origins of the myth of joint liability for the debts of a spouse, it’s useful to know that spouses are almost never personally legally responsible the debts incurred by the other spouse.  The fact that the credit card company has printed your name on the bill along with your spouse certainly doesn’t make you responsible for paying that debt; they may as well have printed President Lincoln’s name on the bill too, for all the legal effect that would have.  The bank’s having mailed you a credit card to match your spouse’s for the same account doesn’t make you liable either.

What makes you legally responsible for a debt, whether you’re married or not, is that you have signed an agreement to pay the debt (unless it’s an oral agreement and someone has a recording).  For credit cards, this means the question is whether you signed the account agreement or original application for the credit card.  No signature means no debt.  If you’re not sure you signed anything, ask the creditor for a copy of the agreement that bears your signature.

While under the common law, spouses are legally responsible for debts for “necessaries” (items necessary for life such as food or medical care), this old doctrine is rarely invoked by creditors due to problems proving what the money or items were actually used for.

Whether you live in a community property state or not, remember that if you didn’t agree in writing to pay the debt, you almost certainly don’t owe it.

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Craig W. Andresen is a consumer bankruptcy lawyer in Bloomington, Minnesota, with 22 years’ experience in consumer and small business bankruptcy cases. He is the Minnesota chair of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, and is a member of the Minnesota State Bar Association’s Bankruptcy Section. Mr. Andresen lectures often on the topic of consumer bankruptcy at local and national legal seminars.

Last modified: February 20, 2013