Do you marry someone with $150,000 in debt?

Our expert says go ahead, but protect yourself by separating romance, finance

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 for the expert

Dear To Her Credit,
My credit is good. Unfortunately, my fiance has approximately $150,000 in debt caused by his ex-wife. We would like to get married, but we do not want his financial upheaval to damage my credit.

Will a prenuptial agreement help? How do the credit card companies look at a new wife taking the name of her husband with horrible credit? Thanks. -- Danielle

Answer for the expert

Dear Danielle,
Don't let old baggage from your fiance's ex keep you from becoming happily married. If you're careful, your husband's old credit history and debt shouldn't hurt your credit at all.

Every person has his or her own credit history and credit score. There is no such thing as a joint credit report, and getting married does not cause any of his pre-existing credit items to show up on your report. His debts do not automatically become yours. Nor do credit card companies care whether you take your husband's name when you get married. A month after you get married, you could apply for a credit card under your new name and nothing should be any different from what it would be today.

The danger, then, is not that his past financial problems will automatically become yours. Just remember to be wary these situations:

  • Major joint purchases: If you want to buy a home together and you need both of your incomes to qualify, his credit score could keep you from being approved or cause you to pay a higher interest rate.
  • Dealing with debt: If the burden of your new husband's debt payments makes it harder for you as a couple to keep up with all your other bills, your credit will suffer.
  • Poor financial habits: If (and I hate to think of it) it turns out the debt wasn't 100 percent the ex's fault, but in fact, money management is not your fiance's strong point, that can affect you, too. That doesn't mean you shouldn't get married -- many wonderful people are still in the "learning phase" of personal finance.
  • Creditors: Even though legally you shouldn't be liable for debt that preceded the marriage (even in community property states), that doesn't mean a creditor won't try to make you pay.

Prenuptial agreements are generally contracts that go into effect if you ever get divorced or when one of you dies. If you have significant assets, for example, and he only has significant debts, a prenuptial agreement could state that in the event of a divorce you keep the assets you brought into the marriage. If you think a prenuptial agreement is a good idea, look for a lawyer who deals specifically with that area, such as a family law specialist. However, a prenuptial agreement is not the best way to protect your credit score during the life of the marriage.

If you are worried about being left with your future husband's significant debt if he dies, especially if you have substantial assets the creditors may try to go after, seek the help of an attorney. This area of the law can be complex and qualified legal advice is well worth the cost.

Your goals as a couple must be to pay off the debt and restore his credit as soon as possible. In the meantime, keep your financial accounts mostly separate. Adding him to your credit cards won't affect your credit as long as you keep the account in good standing, but don't add your name to even one of his accounts that has a history of "financial upheaval." If you do, that card's history will show up on your report!

I urge you and your fiance to make sure you on the same page financially. Consider reading money management books, going to a local personal finance seminar or seeing a credit counselor. This is the perfect time to start dreaming and setting goals. Make sure financial problems don't get in the way of your new and exciting life together.

See related: Come clean about debts before they damage your relationship, How bad credit affects a new marriage, 5 tips for protecting your credit during marriage breakup, What happens to credit card debt after death, A just-married guide to changing your name on credit cards

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Updated: 11-23-2017