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Should I Worry about My Spouse’s Student Loan Debt and Being Responsible for Their Payments?

One thing that’s decidedly unromantic is thinking about student loans. Still, if your spouse or potential spouse went to college, there’s a good chance they’re towing around a student loan burden. So, you might be wondering, “Am I responsible for my spouse's student loan debt?”

According to the Dept. of Education, 43 million Americans currently have outstanding student loans. There’s a decent chance your significant other has them as well.

The big question is — how does that affect you? Are you legally liable for your spouse’s student loan debt? In most cases, the answer is no. But, as always, there are some caveats. Even if you aren’t responsible for their student loans, it’ll still impact you one way or another.

The question we are trying to help with today is, “Am I responsible for my spouse's student loan debt?” It’s also important to note here that we’re not lawyers. We’re just nerds obsessed with helping people get out of student loan debt ASAP. This information is general advice. But it’s always best to consult with a lawyer if you’ve got any big, life-changing questions.

Did you cosign for your spouse’s student loans?

This question is the easiest one to ask and the most straightforward one to answer.

If you cosigned on your spouse’s student loans at any time, whether they’re federal loans, private loans, or refinanced loans, that means you are legally liable for those student loans.

The reason is that as a cosigner, you signed your name to the contract agreeing to pay back those student loans if your spouse can’t pay them for some reason.

If your spouse dies or is otherwise unable to pay back their loans, the lender will look to you to pay your spouse's loans. It’s a good reason to think twice about what it means to be a cosigner, before signing on the dotted line. This isn't exactly a financial situation you want to be in.

In most cases, federal student loans don’t require cosigners. You’ll only need a cosigner if you’re applying for a PLUS Loan and you have a bad credit history. Since most people take out federal student loans first, you’re probably safe if you only have federal loans.

The private student loan world works a bit differently, however. It’s common for private lenders to require a cosigner, especially since most students don’t have a lot of credit history built up yet or don't have a strong credit score. In this case, there may be a good chance you’ll need a cosigner for the student loan. If it’s your spouse, they’re also equally liable to pay it back if you’re unable to.

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Did your spouse take out their student loans before or after you got married?

Again, here’s another simple question with a simple answer.

If your spouse took out their student loans before you got married, then you are generally not held legally responsible for those student loans.

Things get a little bit more complicated, however, if your spouse took out student loans after you got married. In that case, it depends on whether you live in a community property state or not to determine what's marital debt.

Do you live in a community property state?

Here’s where things get a bit muddier as to whether you’re responsible for your spouse’s student loan debt or not. To start, we’ll explain what community property states are.

What are community property states?

Normally, you’re only held responsible for loans that you yourself sign.

So, say for example you go out and buy a Maserati for the family’s Christmas present. Your spouse may be furious with you for spending all of that money. But because they didn’t sign on for the loan, they’re not liable for the car payment. That’s technically all on you, buddy.

But in community property states, things work a bit differently. In a community property state, both spouses are equally responsible for all debts taken out after they’re married. So that expensive Maserati? If you live in a community property state and your spouse buys one without your consent, you’re still liable for that debt. Good luck.

Currently, there are nine-ish community property states that impact student loan responsibility:

  • Alaska (couples can opt in or out of community property laws in this state)
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

How do student loans work in community property states?

Couples are jointly responsible for most debts incurred after marriage in community property states. But there are still some snags and differences with student loans. Let's dig into if a spouse is responsible for student loans incurred before marriage.

If your spouse took out federal student loans after you were married and you live in a community property state, chances are you still won’t be held responsible for their federal student loans. Federal student loans are generally kept with the person who took them out as a separate debt, regardless of whether they were married at the time or not, and regardless of where they live.

Things take a different turn when you’re talking about private student loans, however. In this case, if your spouse took out private student loans after you were married and you live in a community property state, chances are you may be held responsible for their private student loans.

These cases are already pretty rare. We’re talking about several required if’s here:

  • Your spouse dies, is unable to pay back their loans, or if you divorce
  • Your spouse has private student loans
  • You live in a community property state
  • Your spouse took out those private student loans after you were married
  • Your particular state’s laws still hold you responsible

That last part is important to pay attention to. Community property states all generally hold couples jointly responsible for debts taken out while they were married. However, some states have different rules for student loan debt (as if it wasn’t confusing enough).

Some states may let you off the hook even if your spouse took out private student loans while you were married, for example. If you fall into this very narrow case, it might be worth your time and money in hiring an attorney to help you make sense of the legal code.

Your spouse’s student loan debt will still impact you

Maybe you’re feeling a sense of relief right now. The truth is that most people won't be held responsible for their spouse’s student loan debt.

But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook just yet.

Just because you’re not legally responsible for your spouse’s debt doesn’t mean you still won’t feel it where it counts — your bank account.

If your spouse has to make a $600 monthly student loan payment, that’s $600 less that's going toward your own shared household. That’s $600 less per month for a house down payment. That's $600 less per month to go toward your kid’s college fund or $600 less per month to go toward your retirement, etc.

Even if you have separate finances, that still means there’s less money overall that your spouse's income can contribute to shared expenses, like rent or mortgage, utilities, etc.

Then there’s the task of applying for joint credit. For example, if you want to buy a house chances are you’ll both need to report your combined household income and debt. If your spouse carries a lot of debt (such as credit card debt and student debt), you may have a very high debt-to-income ratio. Lenders generally don’t like that. If this ratio is high enough (i.e. your spouse has a lot of debt relative to their income), you may be offered higher interest rates, or be denied outright for a mortgage.

No matter which way you slice it, your spouse’s student debt still impacts you at the end of the day. It's important to consider how this debt will impact financial decisions now and in the future. Plus, stay on top of your credit report and personal finances so you can manage your unique situation.

FAQs about whether you’re responsible for your spouse’s student loan debt

If I sign a prenup, can I exclude my spouse from my student loan debt?

Probably not. Just because you sign a prenup doesn’t mean that you can change the laws. If your state’s laws say your spouse is responsible for your student loan debt (or vice versa), they’ll still be responsible, regardless of what your prenuptial agreement says.

What happens to my student loans if I die and my spouse isn’t responsible for the remaining debt?

If you have federal student loans, they’ll generally be discharged if you die. The federal government won’t come after your estate.

If you die with private student loans, however, and your spouse isn’t responsible for them, then the lender may or may not come after your estate. It all depends on whether they offer a death discharge or not — as a disclaimer, some do, some don’t. If they don’t offer a death discharge, they'll come after your estate for the remaining debt. This will reduce how much is left over for your surviving spouse and other heirs.

How can I check to see how much student loan debt my spouse really has before I marry them?

Unfortunately, there’s no way for you as a fiancé or fiancée to get access to your would-be spouse’s financial accounts without their permission. You’ll simply have to take them at their word. If you think they may be lying, it might be time to reconsider whether you really want to become a married couple.

What if the IRS garnishes my tax return because my spouse didn’t pay their student loans?

This is an interesting case. If your spouse doesn’t make their student loan payments, the IRS can withhold your joint tax return to pay those past-due debts. In this case, you are allowed to file Form 8379 (“Injured Spouse Allocation”), which allows you to keep your share of the tax refund, while your spouse’s share is held to pay off the debt.

The form can be kind of complicated, so it might be best to work with a CPA to fill it out correctly.

Am I responsible for my spouse's student loan debt? If so how can I protect myself?

The easiest way is to simply try and pay off the loans as fast as possible. If you think you might be held responsible for your spouse’s student loans if they die, it may be a good idea to consider a life insurance policy that will cover the outstanding loan balance.

No one likes to think about these things, but taking a second to plan ahead now can potentially turn a financially catastrophic event into only a regularly catastrophic event and can help you manage student loan repayment.

How to pay off your spouse’s student loans faster

You can see now why even if your spouse’s student loans are theirs and theirs alone, it’s still a good idea to treat them like a joint account. If you help repay your spouse’s student loans faster, that’s more money that’s left for both of you at the end of the day.

am i responsible for my spouse's student loan debt

Plus, it’s a healthier way of viewing your finances. It’s like the old Shakespeare phrase says, what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours.

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of magic-wand-waving you can do here to pay off your spouse’s student loans faster. The old standby advice of finding ways to save money and earn more money — and applying the surplus toward your student loan monthly payment — is the best advice of all.

Still, there are other things you can do to help pay off your spouse’s student loan debt faster:

If you need outside help in evaluating your options to get out of student loan debt for as little money as possible, consider hiring one of our expert student loan planners. We’ve got a lot of experience in tackling student loan hurdles. No matter what your situation is, we’ve seen it, and we can help with payment plans to move forward.

Did you know how much student loan debt your partner had before you got married? Are you each paying off student loans separately or together?

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  1. Joe September 16, 2019 at 3:15 PM

    How is your partner’s income factored in cases of common law marriage when determining a repayment plan, especially for PSLF in situations where their income is considerably more? I’ve heard many people avoid formal marriage for this reason when they have over 150k of student debt but can’t find any specific information on the topic.

    • Travis Hornsby September 17, 2019 at 4:19 PM

      It’s all based on your tax return. If you’re married filing joint then they include spousal income on all plans. If you’re married filing separate they include it for REPAYE only but not PAYE or IBR.

      • Paige August 18, 2020 at 9:21 AM

        We are not currently married, and live in a community property state (Louisiana). Is it possible to draw up a prenup to keep his income separate from mine when on the IBR?

        I’m on PSLF currently. Trying to figure out a way to get married without breaking our bank account.

  2. Sarah October 17, 2019 at 7:33 AM

    Both my spouse and I have student debt, filing jointly. Will they combine out student debt or is it two separate payments? It’s with nelnet, we are trying to figure out different options before we call making a large, (struggling) financial decision.

    • Travis Hornsby October 17, 2019 at 3:40 PM

      If the debts are both on an income driven payment then it shouldnt matter much about you being married the payments should be very similar.

  3. Britt March 6, 2020 at 8:20 AM

    I have been a stay-at-home mum for two years. I have made no income this past year to be taxed, so nothing to obviously be filed. How can my old college (not student loan agency) legally take my husbands state taxes to pay my dept of 7 years ago off (we have been married for about 5 years) before we were married?

    • Travis Hornsby March 13, 2020 at 8:59 PM

      That’s a great policy question for Congress. You can sign up for PAYE and file separately if you’re eligible and exclude his income. But you might have tax complications that would need to be addressed.

  4. Kristie June 20, 2020 at 1:11 PM

    I have student loans and just got married. My loans are currently in deferment. I recently got married. Will my husband’s income be factored in when filing again and deciding my monthly payment? I was not married last year and now have to refile for deferment in the next couple months.

    • Amy at Student Loan Planner June 30, 2020 at 10:08 AM

      It depends on your tax filing status and which repayment plan you’re on. If you file jointly, your husband’s income will be considered. If you file separately, only your income will be considered unless you’re on the REPAYE plan.

  5. Kevin August 12, 2020 at 6:07 PM

    My Wife owes upwards of $80,000 in student loans (before marriage) which we are currently trying to fight. They do garnish our tax return, but because I have the only income I usually get it back from the injured spouse form I file. I am currently purchasing a house. QUESTION: Should I add my wife on the title? If I do, can they come after my house for non-payment?

    • Amy at Student Loan Planner August 28, 2020 at 1:03 PM

      You should reach out to a tax expert to be sure. You might try these guys https://studentloantaxexperts.com/

  6. Paige August 18, 2020 at 9:22 AM

    We are not currently married, and live in a community property state (Louisiana). Is it possible to draw up a prenup to keep his income separate from mine when on the IBR?

    I’m on PSLF currently. Trying to figure out a way to get married without breaking our bank account.

    • Amy at Student Loan Planner August 28, 2020 at 12:29 PM

      There are tax strategies to lower your income-driven payment for PSLF. Sometimes, filing separately can save you money, but it can also cost you money under some scenarios. I highly recommend you use our student loan calculator or reach out to a consultant for guidance on how to set up your repayment plan.

  7. Lana September 13, 2020 at 7:25 PM

    If you incurred student loan debt and then married, but refinanced these loans so that you extended the time repayment plan so the marriage could benefit, then you are getting a divorce in a state that decides assets as fair and equitable, can my spouse be forced to pay some of this debt?

    • Amy at Student Loan Planner September 15, 2020 at 10:59 AM

      Generally, if the debt was acquired before the marriage, then it isn’t considered marital debt. But you should definitely check with an attorney to be sure because there are a significant number of variables to sort through during a divorce.

  8. Jeff October 5, 2020 at 6:04 PM

    I applied and was granted Income-Driven Repayment Plan last year. This year I must reapply. This year they want me to have my spouse cosign the application. It specifically states “Your spouse will need to select the option to Cosign Spouse’s Income-Driven Repayment Plan Request.” Our question is would this transfer any liability to the spouse or affect their credit in any way? Thank you in advance.

    • Amy at Student Loan Planner October 7, 2020 at 4:45 PM

      It doesn’t transfer any liability to the spouse. They’re basically signing saying that they’re your spouse and that their income is correct to the best of their knowledge.

  9. Eric December 2, 2020 at 3:23 AM

    I have no debt. Gf has $30k student loan and a $35k car loan. If we get married, will her loans/debt be considered when apply for a home loan? We live in California. It will not be joint loan. I plan to only use my credit score and debt/income ratio. Or does being married require a joint home loan and her debt will be considered? Thank you!

    • Amy at Student Loan Planner December 13, 2020 at 11:12 AM

      You don’t have to have a joint home loan if you’re married. If you apply in just your name, your credit score and financial information will be considered.

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