You're marrying your fiance's debts, too
By Gary Foreman | Published: December 22, 2011
The New Frugal You
Dear New Frugal You,
I'm planning a wedding for early next year. We're deeply in love, but I have a problem: I have a good credit score (over 750) and my boyfriend does not. It's not that he's a bad person. He's just fallen behind in a few bills. What should I do? When we get married, would I be responsible for any of his debts? And what about my credit score? When we get married, do our credit scores get married, too? I love this man, but I also love my good credit! -- Engaged But Concerned
You're absolutely right to guard your credit score carefully. Not only can it affect how much you pay to borrow money, but it can also affect your ability to get jobs and apartments, and how much you pay for auto insurance. The trend to use your score for more things will likely continue. So maintaining a good credit score is important for all of us.
Let's start at the beginning. You will not automatically marry your Intended's credit score. The reason is simple, but important: You cannot be held responsible for any debts that you did not incur or agree to be responsible for.
That's the good news. The bad news is that it's difficult to keep your credit scores separate after you are married. Let's see what we can do to protect you.
As much as is possible, you'll want to keep your financial affairs separate from Intended's. That means no joint credit cards, checking accounts, leases or payments. Autos, homes and investment accounts all need to be kept totally separate.
It's important to understand that any joint accounts could put you at risk. For instance, if he missed a payment on a joint credit card, both of your scores will be hit. Plus, creditors often can take assets from joint accounts, even if you were the only one to put money into the account and the debt is not yours.
We don't have the space to do a detailed discussion on the various types of joint accounts. But be aware that in some states, it's assumed that both partners own all of the account. So even if your Intended wouldn't take the money himself, a court could order him to use all of that money to satisfy a debt.
Keeping your financial affairs separate won't be easy. If you want to purchase a condo or house, you'll need to qualify solely on your own income. Legally, you'll be fully responsible for the mortgage, taxes, insurance and repairs. The same thing would apply for other major purchases, such as cars.
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Even if you do keep completely separate accounts, you'll still have some challenges. He'll be bringing all his debts with him to the marriage. Any commitments that he's made to creditors will still be in place.
Your intended will need to honor those promises before he does anything for you. For instance, his oversized payment for the truck -- you know, the one that he owes more on than it's worth -- must be paid before he gives you any money for groceries or rent.
You'd be wise to create a joint budget before you get married. Money squabbles are the cause of many breakups. Your circumstances make that danger even greater. Knowing what income and expenses you each bring to the marriage could help avoid arguments later. At the very least, you'll each know what's expected of you.
Finally, Concerned, I have some advice that you might not like: I'd recommend a long engagement, for a number of reasons.
It's an opportunity to see how committed your fiance is to your relationship. If we're being honest, we'll admit that some people get into debt problems because they want instant gratification and lack the ability to stay committed to things. That's not good for a marriage that you hope will last for decades.
If your fiance is serious about you, he'll be willing to make sacrifices to pay down his debts. He'll be willing to take a part-time job or forgo some purchases. Over the course of a year, you should see his total debt slowly decrease.
On the other hand, if he's not able to make progress before the marriage, don't expect that you'll change his ways later. The divorce courts are full of people who thought that they'd change their spouse after the wedding.
Delaying the wedding gives you time to watch how Intended handles things and also gives you time to consider what it might be like to answer collection calls meant for him.
They say that opposites attract. And, that might be true. But you need to be sure that opposites can live together for years, especially if your intended shows no ability to overcome his debts.
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