Is a Spouse Responsible for Student Loans?
Most future spouses won’t be responsible for their partner’s student loans, but it’ll depend on when the debt was acquired and other factors. Before getting married, it’s best to know who is liable for student loan debt since the answer can be surprisingly complicated at times.
Am I responsible for my spouse’s student loan debt?
Marrying someone with student loan debt won’t make you liable for their loans.
No. Student debt that you bring into a marriage remains your debt.
Let’s say you have $30,000 in federal student loans and $40,000 in private student loans when you get married. Your spouse might help pay down your debt, but you’re the only one legally responsible.
This scenario also applies if you marry someone who has federal PLUS loans, which are available to parents and graduate and professional students.
Yes. If you live in a community property state and your spouse borrows a student loan while you’re married, the debt is considered community debt. Whether it is from federal or private loans, it’s shared by both spouses.
There are nine community property states:
- New Mexico
Separately, Alaska couples can opt in to community property rules.
Is your spouse responsible for student loans incurred before marriage?
No. It’s a different story, however, if you cosigned for your spouse’s student loans before the marriage.
If you’re a cosigner, you’re legally responsible for the debt if the borrower stops repaying the loan, which can make you subject to:
- Collection efforts
- Wage garnishments
That’s not it, though. Your student loan agreement could include a cosigner clause that forces full repayment under certain circumstances, such as if the main borrower files for bankruptcy. And both your and your spouse’s credit scores could be severely damaged.
Will your former spouse be responsible for student loans after a divorce?
Yes. If you’re a cosigner on one or more private students loans and you get divorced, your legal obligations remain. It’s irrelevant to the lender whether you’re married.
No. Federal student loans don’t require cosigners. (A spouse can cosign on a partner’s income-driven repayment application, but you’re not obligated to repay the loan.)
No and yes. Your ex-spouse will remain solely liable for their loans if you get a divorce, unless you live in a community property state. Debt assumed during a marriage in a community property state is considered the couple’s joint debt, but Stanley Tate, a student loan attorney in the St. Louis suburbs, said this reality is misleading.
A divorce settlement, Tate said, might state that the divorced couple will each be responsible for the student loan debt — but the lender won’t care. A lender will still consider the borrower to be liable for the loan. If the former spouse, who didn’t take out the loan, stops paying, the lender will only go after the original borrower. When this happens, the aggrieved party could sue if their ex-spouse doesn’t pay, but Tate said this doesn’t happen in the “overwhelming number of cases” because of the cost.
Am I responsible for my spouse’s student loan debt after death?
Again, it depends.
No. Federal student loans are discharged if a borrower dies, while federal PLUS loans are discharged if the parent borrower or student dies.
Yes and no. If you cosigned on a private loan with your spouse and they died, you may have to continue making loan payments. While it’s not common, some private loan lenders — such as Sallie Mae — will wipe out the debt if a student loan borrower dies.
Yes. You’ll be obligated to pay your spouse’s debt if you combined your college debt into a private spousal consolidation loan, said Betsy Mayotte, president of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors, a nonprofit that provides advice to borrowers.
Some couples are tempted to consolidate their student loan debt into a private loan, especially if they could get a lower interest, but it’s usually a bad idea, Mayotte said. The federal government stopped allowing joint spousal consolidation loans in 2006.
Balancing student loans and marriage
Combining households financially will take planning, compromise and a game plan. Student loan liability isn’t the only issue that couples need to focus on when merging households.
“People should be talking about this before marriage,” said Matthew Alden, a consumer law attorney in Cleveland. “It’s a major issue, and everybody needs to go in with their eyes wide open.”
Be honest when discussing your financial situations
During money discussions, it’s important for future partners to be completely honest with each other about student loan debt — or any debt for that matter. Regardless of who is bringing debt into the marriage, it’s important to develop a plan with which both partners agree. This is critical because the loans will impact the overall finances of the household.
Mayotte said she has witnessed a wide range of reaction when individuals broach the subject of student loan debt to their future partners. On the extreme end, Mayotte has seen individuals end engagements because they don’t want to marry someone saddled with a great deal of student loan debt. In contrast, Mayotte said she hears this a lot: “I’m marrying the love of my life and [they have] never paid attention to these loans and I want to get a handle on it.”
There are also spouses who conceal their debt, Mayotte said. Their dishonesty, she said, can be revealed in situations, such as when a couple is buying a house that requires a credit check or a tax refund is garnished.
Pay back your student loan debt wisely
Discussing if your soon-to-be spouse is responsible for student loan debt, before marriage, is critical because there are a variety of repayment plans available for those who borrow federal loans.
The following income-driven repayment methods for federal student loans only consider the borrower’s income if a couple submits married filing separately tax returns:
- Pay as You Earn (PAYE)
- Income-based repayment (IBR)
- Income-contingent repayment (ICR)
Regardless of how a couple files taxes, the fourth income-driven repayment method — Revised Pay as You Earn (REPAYE) — will take the income of both spouses into account when calculating payments.
Choosing your best way to repay student loans when getting married could potentially save you money.