Must husband pay wife's unpaid card debt?

Legal obligations vary by state

Question for the expert

Dear Credit Wise,
My wife has a moderate amount of credit card debt (under $15,000)  in her name only. This was accumulated in Georgia (where we still live). Am I  liable for her credit card debt if I am not listed on her card or account (i.e.,  only under her name, Social Security number and credit report)? Also, she is a  stay-at-home mother with no income to pay off the debt. What are our  obligations? I have never not paid a debt I owed and have a credit score of 820 with only mortgage debt at this time. Although I feel guilt for the debt she  incurred (although not to my knowledge) I am not sure I feel obligated to pay  this off. (Full disclosure -- she has done this in the past and I have paid it  off -- close to $80,000!). I'm looking for some direction. -- Jeff

Answer for the expert

Dear Jeff,
Debt in a marriage can be complicated, whether it is in one spouse's name or both. You live in Georgia, which is not a community property state. As such, you are not legally responsible for payment of debt in your wife's name only. However, anything that you own jointly with her, such as property or a bank account, may be in jeopardy if the debt is ignored and goes unpaid.

If you decide to pay the debt, you are fortunate you have good credit. That means you will have the option of getting a balance transfer credit card with good terms -- in today's market, you should be able to get a card with 0 percent interest for at least 12 months, which will buy you time to pay off at least part of the debt without incurring interest costs. Use the  "0 percent balance transfer payoff calculator" to see what payments you can afford.

Should you decide to let the unsecured credit card debt go unpaid, after 180 days or so of nonpayment the creditor will likely charge off the debt and send it to collections. During the 180 days of nonpayment the creditor will regularly contact your wife seeking payment. Once the debt is turned over to collections, attempts to collect the debt will likely increase.

Because the amount of the debt is significant, collectors are likely to use the courts in their attempt to collect the debt. This is where your joint property and bank account could become vulnerable. The debt is valid, and therefore probable that the collector would be granted a judgment for the amount due if the case were to go to court. A judgment can be used to garnish bank accounts or to place a lien on real property including homes and personal property such as jewelry or art.

Filing bankruptcy would not solve the problem of your wife's debt in your case. To file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, where no portion of the debt must be repaid, household income is considered. So, even though your wife has no income, your income would be considered to determine if she qualified for a Chapter 7 filing. Your income would have to be under the median income for your state for her to qualify. A Chapter 13 filing, which is most likely what your wife would have to file, would require repayment of at least a portion of the debt. You might consider consulting with an attorney to further discuss your options concerning the debt.

Determining the reason your wife has once again spent money using credit cards without your knowledge and finding a way to solve that issue may be the best way to assure you don't find yourself in this situation again.

Be wise with your credit.

See related: Community property laws and credit card debt, What garnishment is, how it works

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Updated: 01-23-2018