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)
- New Mexico
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.
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:
- Adopt a debt snowball or debt avalanche payoff method.
- Find and apply for student loan forgiveness programs.
- See if your lender offers borrower discounts, such as for enrolling in autopay.
- See if getting cash back by refinancing student loans and a lower rate would save you money on student loan interest.
- Explore income-driven repayment plans (such as Pay As You Earn, Revised Pay As You Earn, Income-Based Repayment, and Income-Contingent Repayment) to save money.
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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