Am I responsible for my spouse’s debt?
Spouse are generally not responsible for the debt of their spouse.
However, a spouse is responsible for the debt of their spouse if s/he agreed to be personally liable for the debt along with the spouse (e.g. co-signing a loan). Check the paperwork – if your name is on the account, or if you signed the agreement, you are most likely responsible for paying back any debt which may arise under that account, regardless of who incurred the debt.
“Non-marital property” is protected from your spouse’s debts. This means that a creditor cannot attach your spouse’s debt to any property that you own independently of your spouse, like a personal bank account (NOT a joint bank account).
Example: Instead of getting two individual credit card accounts, Jane and Joe decide to open a joint credit card account together. Jane and Joe are married and are responsible for the debt on the account. If Joe dies, Jane is likely still on the hook for this debt, even if Joe was the only one who made purchases with the card.
Read the Law: Md. Code, Family Law, § 4-301
You are NOT responsible for the debt of your spouse if:
- You did not sign an agreement holding you personally responsible for the particular debt.
- The debt arose prior to your marriage.
- The debt arose after your divorce.
- You can demonstrate fraud.
Frequently Asked Questions
What about my spouse’s medical bills? Am I responsible for paying those?
If your spouse incurred medical expenses (for example, in a hospital or a hospice) and you did NOT sign onto the agreement, you are NOT responsible for these bills.
What happens to my spouse’s debt when they die?
State law determines “who gets what” after someone dies. When your spouse passes away, any property that they held individually (i.e., any accounts or personal property they did not own jointly with you) will be sent into a court-controlled process called probate.
My spouse recently passed away and I suddenly started receiving calls from creditors saying I owe them money – do I need to pay?
Most likely not, but you need to figure out how the particular debt arose. See above for debts you are and are not responsible for.
After your spouse passes away, your spouse’s creditors (the people or institutions to whom he/she owed money) will likely file claims against your spouse’s estate. These claims do not affect you – they are against your spouse’s estate. If the creditors cannot get paid through your spouse’s estate, they cannot take any money from you. Those creditors are not legally entitled to any of your money.
Can a creditor take my house if my spouse owed them lot of money?
Most likely not. But, it depends on how you and your spouse own the house.
In Maryland, you and your spouse are presumed to own the house as a Tenancy by the Entirety (TBE). This means that you own the house as an indivisible unit. The surviving spouse (i.e., you) retains the right of survivorship, meaning that the house will automatically pass to the surviving spouse upon death of the other spouse and cannot be used to pay the debt of the deceased spouse. If you and your spouse bought the house as a married couple, you own it as a TBE. In Maryland, the debt of one spouse cannot attach to a property held as a TBE.
If you and your spouse do NOT own the house as a TBE (e.g. if you owned it before getting married and your spouse moved in), your situation is different.
Read the Law: Md. Code, Family Law, § 8-201
What if my partner and I live together but are not married?
Maryland law regarding spouse’s debt only applies to married persons. This also means Maryland’s laws which determine what happens when someone dies without a Will (“intestacy” laws) do not apply as well.
To express and clarify your wishes, you and your partner can create a Domestic Partnership Agreement. In such an Agreement, you can affirm that you are both responsible for debts incurred jointly but remain individually responsible for debts incurred individually.
Related articles: Unmarried Cohabitants’ Benefits and Unmarried Cohabitant’s Right to Support and Property
Are non-heterosexual couples treated differently?
No. While Maryland’s laws use “husband” and “wife” as the two units of a legal marriage, sexual orientation and gender are no longer grounds for determining the validity of a marriage. Maryland law is “orientation-blind” and applies equally to all married couples.