Living together doesn't create common-law marriage or debt liability

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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Question Dear Sally,
My partner works in social services with underprivileged boys. Because his salary was so low (about $35,000), and I have a business that earns $180,000, I pay for almost everything. I bought the house, the cars (one in his name), all renovations and furniture. I pay the mortgage. I also put him through school.

My partner is responsible for heat and electricity and our internet bill. We split groceries. I set up a bank account and he can take money out of it, but it is in my name. Up until a few months ago, he had his own bank account, but recently we decided to put our money into the one bank account.

Last night, he told me that he had accrued over $15,000 in credit card debt. He also has student loans for about the same amount. We are not legally married, but we have been living together for over 10 years.

Can you tell me how responsible I am for this debt in the eyes of the credit bureaus and creditors? My partner is actually a great guy, but this is really challenging. Thanks for your advice! – Jamie


Dear Jamie,
Common-law marriages can be created only by the parties involved – not by your creditors.

It’s not as easy to find yourselves in a common-law marriage as people may think. First, you must live in a state that recognizes common-law marriages. Only nine states and the District of Columbia recognize common-law marriages. All states recognize common-law marriages that were formed in a state that recognizes them.

In addition, you must both intend to be in a recognized common-law marriage, and to present yourself as married. Merely living together for a certain number of years doesn’t make you married. You don’t need to worry about being considered in a common-law marriage when that was not your intent.

Having a joint checking account could be a problem if your partner lets his debts slide until creditors take him to court and try to attach his assets. Although you have legal recourse if the creditors take some or all of the money in your joint account, it’s far simpler to prevent that from happening in the first place by keeping separate accounts.

In the eyes of the credit bureaus, your partner’s credit card accounts and student loans have nothing to do with you, unless, of course, the cards were opened in both your names, your partner is an authorized user on your cards or if you co-signed on the student loans. As long as your name is not on his student loans or credit card accounts, even if you are an authorized user on any of his cards, you should be fine.

A bigger issue than your liability for his debts is how you handle finances with your partner from now on. I never like to hear that people have been keeping financial secrets from each other. You put him through school, you pay all but a few bills, and still he racks up that much debt? That’s not good. Still, great guys are hard to find, and none of us is perfect.

Here’s what I recommend you do:

  • Have a frank discussion with your partner about money. Don’t just talk about what happened. Talk about his goals, your goals and how you’re going to work together toward those goals. When people live together, even when they’re not married, their financial decisions inevitably affect each other.
  • Check your credit report (for free at, if you haven’t done so already, and make sure none of his accounts are showing on your report. If they are, for example, if he added you as an authorized user to his credit cards, you should remove yourself from the accounts immediately. You can always remove yourself as an authorized user from someone else’s account.

Under the circumstances, I’d get separate checking accounts again. You could keep a small account together for convenience sake. However, if there is any danger of creditors taking him to court and seizing assets, you’ll wish you had separate bank accounts. In fact, I recommend that people avoid having joint bank or credit card accounts with anyone other than a trusted spouse, except in unusual circumstances. If your partner isn’t fiscally responsible, you’re better off keeping them apart.

See related: Poll: 4 in 10 co-signers lose money, Financial infidelity poll: 6 percent hid bank account from spouse or partner

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Updated: 02-22-2019