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Illustration of wedding bands, one of which is bottomless hole.
Illustration of wedding bands, one of which is bottomless hole.
Illustration of wedding bands, one of which is bottomless hole.

Published February 28, 2017.
Updated July 2, 2019.

Considering marriage? Consider your partner's debt, too.

Sure, his eyes are dreamy chocolate puddles. What's his credit card balance?

Sure, she has a master's degree in English literature. How much does she owe on it?

Unromantic as it may sound, the debt both partners bring to your marriage will affect your relationship, not to mention your finances.

Debt and other financial challenges are among couples' top causes of arguments and divorce, says Karen Richel, a financial counselor and financial literacy educator for University of Idaho Extension.

Good communication that starts before marriage can prevent a lot of that trouble, Richel says, but it happens too rarely: "Many couples avoid talking about things like money, sex, politics, religion, and kids — only to find out these are the things marriage is all about."

Observation period.

Considering marriage? Richel suggests observing your beloved's financial habits, asking them how much money they owe and to whom, and talking together about your shared goals.

When you're dating someone, pay attention to whether they blow through money or pay their bills on time. After deciding to marry, put off the wedding for at least four seasons, Richel advises. That gives you time to see their behavior in different situations that arise throughout a year. It lets you watch their spending patterns.

And have a heart-to-heart about how much you both owe, and to whom. "Your life partner is also your financial partner," Richel says.

“Many couples avoid talking about money, sex, politics, religion, and kids — only to find out these are the things marriage is all about.” Richel says.

For richer for poorer ... forever?

It's also important to understand how community property laws affect your debts.

In general, the debt your partner took on before you got married is their debt to keep. When you marry someone, you don't automatically become responsible for half their premarriage debt, even if you split up.

But in Washington and Idaho, that changes post-nuptials. In community property states, all debts incurred during a marriage belong to "the community" — i.e., the married couple. So if your spouse got a boat loan and failed to make the payments, creditors could go after you.

Even if they incurred all their debt before you tied the knot, however, it's likely to affect you. The amount they owe and how consistently they pay it back will affect their credit score. And that will affect your ability to jointly rent an apartment or buy a house, for example.

Also, your partner's debt will affect their ability to contribute toward your goals as a couple, such as raising a family.

So, if your partner brings debt to the marriage, should you take on part of their burden by helping to pay it off? Maybe, Richel says. You're a team now.

The sooner everyone's debt is paid off, the sooner you're both able to move forward — together.



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