Is husband liable for wife's $50,000 card debt?

After her death, he'll be affected, even if he doesn't owe

To Her Credit columnist 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, and also wrote for MSN Money, and, and has guested on Martha Stewart Radio and other programs.

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Dear To Her Credit,
I have several credit cards with a total balance of $50,000. I have no problem making the minimum payments on them. In the event of my death, will my husband be responsible for those debts? He is not a joint or authorized user on the cards. -- Lynn


Dear Lynn,
Your husband is not automatically responsible for your credit card debt in the event of your death if he is not a joint account holder. That doesn't mean he's completely off the hook, however. And your debt will surely affect him, whether you die first or not.

First, if you live in a community property state, the credit card companies may pursue your husband for these debts. Community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. Alaska allows you to opt in to a community property arrangement.

Even if you do not live in a community property state, if you die, any large debts of yours will probably affect your husband. When people die, everything they own becomes part of their estates -- including both assets and debts. Your cash, investments and other assets are generally included in your estate. You may have stipulated in your will that some or all of your assets go to your husband when you die. Your debts, including the $50,000 in credit card debt, must be paid before the remainder of your assets can be distributed. So even though your husband may not be directly responsible for your debts, he will generally receive less from your estate as a result of them.

I'd be more concerned about how $50,000 in credit card debt affects you and your husband while you are alive. Unless you have a very high income (and I'm assuming that's not so or you would have paid this off), it's almost impossible for you to make serious progress toward your financial goals while carrying a crushing load of debt. 

The bigger your debt load becomes, the easier it is for it to grow even bigger. There's the interest expense, for one thing. When you have no debt, you'd be upset if your balance sneaks up to $10,000. With a $50,000 debt, what's the difference if it goes up to $60,000? In fact, you may be paying so much on minimum payments now that you feel like you have to put everyday expenses on your credit card.

I strongly urge you to pay off this debt -- as fast as you possibly can. Sell your car, work overtime or take a second job, sell the stuff you bought with your credit cards, stop eating out and buying clothes for now. Cook from scratch. Forget fancy vacations for now -- explore local sights or go tent camping. Consider taking money from savings, as long as you still maintain an emergency fund. If you need help figuring out how to pay off your debts, I recommend finding a nonprofit agency affiliated with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling or the Association of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies. They can be an enormous help as you get started and stay on track.

As a married couple, you're in this financial boat together. You can't tip over just one side of the boat. You may hit the icy water first, but he'll be right there with you soon enough. Take good care of yourself, your husband and your finances, and I hope you live a long time and reach your goals in life together.

See related: What happens to credit card debt after death?

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Updated: 11-22-2017