Can Credit Debt be Passed on to Spouse?

The old saying goes that you don’t just marry your spouse – you marry his or her family as well... but many people wonder: do you also marry your spouse’s credit card debt? It’s a legitimate question, since in the eyes of the law (and many creditors) you and your spouse become “one” in a financial sense. You file taxes together, you combine your incomes to run a household, and oftentimes credit cards are used jointly by spouses, making them both responsible for the debt. Thus, in the event that one of the spouses passes away, the question of what might happen to debt listed under his or her name is often presented by married couples who want to plan for their futures.

Unsecured Debt Belongs to the Account Holder Only

The answer to this question is relatively reassuring: contrary to most people’s assumptions, it’s not terribly common for the surviving spouse to be responsible for such debts. In fact, in most situations, the surviving member of the marriage would NOT be responsible for the credit debt of the other. If the debt is held solely in the name of one spouse (in other words, if it isn’t a joint account), then upon the death of that person the spouse cannot be held accountable for the payments. Even if the spouse is listed as a joint cardholder and has privileges to use the card, if they are not specifically a joint holder of the account, it is not their responsibility to pay the remaining debt.

There may be certain situations in community property states where the debt could conceivably pass on to the remaining spouse, but those situations primarily occur when dealing with something other than credit card debt. For example, if dealing with a car loan, the existing property (i.e. the car) likely passes into the hands of the surviving spouse, and thus that person could likely be held accountable for the payments. But an unsecured credit card debt belongs solely to the person whose name is on the account, and upon the death of that person, the debt will in most cases become noncollectable.

Getting Help

If you experience the death of a spouse and are unsure how to proceed in terms of his or her credit card debts, it’s best to speak with a lawyer who’s versed in the legal rules of your state, and who can examine your specific situation to be sure. But in most scenarios your responsibility will include merely informing the creditors that the account holder has died. You may be required, depending on your spouse’s estate and assets upon the time of death, to pay off what you can using those assets, but even this is up for question, particularly in situations where those assets may have been left to you and thus are now considered your property. 

Before you take any steps towards resolving such unsecured accounts in this type of situation, you should consult with someone versed in the legal aspects of the situation and ensure that you know best how to proceed. Do not allow the creditors themselves to tell you what you should or must do in terms of paying back the account; as this has now become a collections situation for them, they may do what they feel is necessary to get the account paid up, but that by no means indicates that you legally have to do so.

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