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When you marry Mr. Debt, be prepared to pay

Exchanging vows with a debt-laden spouse brings challenges

By

To Her Credit
To Her Credit, Sally Herigstad
Sally Herigstad is a certified public accountant and the author of "Help! I Can't Pay My Bills: Surviving a Financial Crisis" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). She writes "To Her Credit," a weekly reader Q&A column about issues involving women, credit and debt, for CreditCards.com, and also writes regularly for MSN Money, Interest.com and Bankrate.com, and has guested on Martha Steward Radio and other programs. See her website SallyHerigstad.com for more personal finance tips and free budgeting worksheets.
Ask Sally a question, or read her previous answers in the To Her Credit archive
Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear To Her Credit,
My fiance and I are planning to get married later this year. I don't have any financial issues -- however, he owes about $7,000 in back taxes (not including what he is going to owe when he files this year), has a foreclosure on his record (he still owes $85,000 on that) and owes $3,000 on a vehicle repossession, which I believe has gone into collections at this point. We also just found out that he has a $55,000 tax lien against him from his foreclosure. All of this occurred before we met. He is planning on filing for bankruptcy, but I don't believe that that will do anything about the tax problems.

My question is: Will this affect me in any way? We live in California. I have heard about this communal property thing. We don't have any combined accounts, but we would like to get a joint bank account. Will that open my money up to garnishment if things go bad? Also, I plan on buying a house with my sister in the near future. If I do this after we get married, but don't include him on the loan or deed, will I be affected by his past issues when trying to buy a home?  -- Sarah

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Sarah,
You didn't ask if you should marry a man in much worse financial shape than you are in. But that unasked question is central to this dilemma. Here's why:

Marrying someone with over $150,000 in back taxes, liens and other bad debts will affect you. Having so many debts in bad standing, especially with more apparently popping up all the time, is a very bad sign. He may be the sweetest guy you have ever met, but his financial life is a mess. He needs to realize that he has to clean it up before he marries you. Otherwise, he's just dragging you into his financial disaster.

That doesn't mean his debts from before the marriage will automatically become yours. They won't.  But if he has run up this many debts in the past few years, how will he keep from adding to it after you are married? From then on, in the state of California and other community property states, creditors will be able to pursue you for his debts.

Furthermore, as a married couple, you should be deciding on financial goals together and working toward them. How will he contribute to these goals? He's working from a disadvantage here, and he is going to feel that acutely. No two people getting married are on exactly equal footing, but it's better if they are a little closer to it than you two are.

Many times a woman thinks she can help a man get on his feet (or vice versa). But it changes the dynamics of a relationship if one partner is as needy as your fiance seems to be. Sad experience has taught many people that it's easy for their relationship to stop feeling less like a partnership and more like a parent-child relationship. And it's the spouse who feels inadequate who often starts to also feel insecure or disgruntled in the marriage.

I hope you wait at least a year, if not two, before you get married. Give him a chance to clean up his credit score and his back taxes and other debts on his own. If he's determined to file for bankruptcy, he should get that out of the way before you get married. (One spouse can file for bankruptcy alone, but it can get messy.)

If he gets his financial affairs in relative order and you get married, hold off on getting credit cards, bank accounts or other accounts with him until he has a clean record for several years. Otherwise, if more creditors pop up and you have a joint account, you could very well find your wages garnished by creditors after they are co-mingled with his.

Now, about buying a house with your sister. Buying real estate with someone other than your spouse doesn't always end well. One party's situation can change quickly, and then what? If the only way you can buy a house is to go in together with your sister, and you are sure you want to do that, then at least go to a lawyer and make sure you're both covered no matter what happens in the future.

If you buy a house with or without your sister, your fiance's (or husband's by that point) credit history and score shouldn't be taken into consideration as long as you don't include him on the loan.

See related: Joint accounts: Till debt do you part, Put off marriage until after bankruptcy, Paying off joint debt brought into a marriage, Mine, yours and ours: Marriage and your money, How bad credit affects a new marriage, Stuck with husband's debt in community property state?

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts
Vexed by a personal finance problem? CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers every weekday. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.
Gary Foreman, New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman,
"New Frugal You"
Sally Herigstad, To Her Credit columnist Sally Herigstad,
"To Her Credit"
Cathleen McCarthy, Cashing In columnist Cathleen McCarthy,
"Cashing In"
Jane McNamara, Let's Talk Credit columnist Jane McNamara,
"Let's Talk Credit"
Elaine Pofeldt, Your Business Credit columnist Elaine Pofeldt,
"Your Business Credit"
Erica Sandberg, Opening Credits columnist Erica Sandberg,
"Opening Credits"

Published: February 11, 2011


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