Dear Debt Adviser: My fiancee has delinquent credit card debt that she cannot pay and has not paid for years. The debt is due to her previous marriage and spouse, but it’s in her name. If we get married, can the credit card companies come after me, my credit or bank accounts? I have good credit, and am current on all of my bills. Thanks. -- William
Dear William: Surely your intended wife has other fine qualities besides the ones you have mentioned! Love is often said to be blind, so I’m glad you are asking some real life questions that will be with you after the honeymoon and long after the bloom is off the rose. I also notice that you have said “if” we get married, indicating this is not yet a done deal.
Here’s the scoop. Any debts that were incurred before the marriage remain the sole responsibility of the owner of the debt after the marriage. So, if you marry, your fiancee’s creditors may not attempt to collect from you any of her debt that was incurred before the marriage. They cannot report any of her debt on your credit report. The question regarding your bank account is a little trickier.
Should your new bride’s creditors sue in court to collect and receive a judgment, it could be used to garnish a bank account. If you have a joint bank account with her, any money that you deposited in the account could be garnished. You would most likely get it back eventually, once you jumped through all the hoops of proving that the money they took was yours and the debts were not, but who wants to go through that? As with many second-marriage couples, especially those with independent assets (or debts), I recommend keeping separate bank and investment accounts that were accumulated before the marriage to reduce any potential problems.
Now, I have a question for you: Have you and your fiancee discussed how you will manage your finances together once you are married? Because you know about her delinquent credit card debt, it sounds as if you have had a least a partial conversation about your financial pasts. It is also important to cover your financial future. If you haven’t already, here are some things you should do as a couple financially:
• Take a look at each other’s credit reports and credit scores.
• Know each other’s current annual salaries and your hopes for future income.
• Determine who is a spender and who is a saver.
• Talk about how you plan to pay any outstanding debts.
• Specifically discuss how her old debts will be handled. Does she expect you to pay, to help her pay, or is there a bankruptcy lurking in your future?
• Now is the time to come clean about any past bankruptcies or other major events in your financial past.
• Discuss spending and budgeting. If one of you doesn’t know what a budget is, I suggest you get one.
• Disclose if you have co-signed a loan for anyone.
• Develop financial goals for the next five years.
• Decide what your long-term financial goals are and how you will fund them.
One last thought is to find out if you live in a community property jurisdiction (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Puerto Rico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin). If you do, you can be held responsible for any debts that your wife incurs after the marriage. Remember, if you don’t learn any lessons from the past and act accordingly, you (and she) will be destined to repeat it.
Steve Bucci is the author of “Credit Management Kit for Dummies.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.