Money is a difficult subject for many couples, despite the fact that having open, honest communication about personal finances is a pillar in a healthy relationship. Many couples do not realize that when they say “I do,” they might also be saying “I do” to whatever personal financial quagmire is lurking in the bank accounts and credit scores of their significant other. Before walking down the aisle, it’s essential for couples to sit down together to understand the full picture of what debt each side may be bringing to the table. One of the biggest debts a couple should discuss before marriage are any lingering student loans.
Do Student Loans Follow People in Marriage?
The short answer is yes and no; student loan debt under certain circumstances can affect both parties in a marriage. Because student loan debt can jump from one spouse to another under specific situations, it’s incredibly important to review all potentials before tying the knot.
Under normal circumstances, individually incurred debts such as student loans, which are incurred before a marriage, remain the sole responsibility of the individual. However, under some circumstances, the debt responsibility can spread from one partner to another. Unfortunately, debt plays a pivotal role in divorce rates across the country, so it’s vital for couples to understand how student loans will affect their partner.
First, if the borrowing party passes away, sometimes their debt can be passed along to their spouse. The good news is that most government loans, and even some private loans, carry an important clause called a death discharge. This provision relieves the spouse from inheriting the debt of their deceased spouse. The bad news is that there are many private loans which do not contain this clause. So in case of death, the spouse would then become responsible for paying it off.
Another circumstance where a spouse can take on their partner’s debt is when the debt is incurred during the marriage instead of before. For instance, if someone goes back to school during the marriage and takes out a student loan (even without their partner co-signing), this debt can then become the responsibility of both parties. Student loans undertaken during a marriage can often legally be considered marital debts, especially in community property states.
Finally, to point out a very obvious circumstance, if a new student loan is granted to one person during a marriage and the other partner co-signs then both parties are responsible for paying off the debt.
Student Loans and Marriage: State by State
In the United States, some states are considered community property states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin) and the others fall under equitable distribution state laws. Under the community property state regulations, all individual property is considered marital property after matrimony (with exceptions). This means that the student loan acquired before getting hitched suddenly becomes the property (and concern) of both parties, especially if the marriage ends in divorce. Equitable distribution states take a more individualistic approach to property in marriage.
In both community property and equitable distribution states the courts can make alternative decisions depending on the situation. For example, even in equitable distribution states, if someone received a student loan during the marriage but the loan was used for rent, the judge may decide in a divorce case that both parties reaped the benefits of the student loan and therefore should divide it. Another example, from community property states, is if only one person earns significant income. A judge will likely not assign 50 percent of the income earner’s debt to the partner who doesn’t make much money at all.
What Questions to Ask Before Getting Married?
Perhaps the most important question to cover is what debt each party is bringing with them into the marriage. Once established, it’s a good idea to take a look at the fine print to determine if any student loans are private and if the student loans contain the death discharge clause. If both sides of the marriage are bringing significant debt to the relationship, it may also be beneficial to seriously consider the strain this debt may be putting on the relationship and what steps can be put into place before it gets out of hand.
Ultimately, because the division of assets and the responsibility for individual assets varies so strongly from state to state, one serious consideration to make is what state regulations are in effect? For those married in an equitable distribution state it is typically much less risky to marry someone with significant student loan debt than in a community property state.