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Do I have to pay for my spouse’s debt after divorce?

On Behalf of | Jun 3, 2024 | Property Division |

People preparing for divorce in California often have a lot of questions. There are many stories about divorce outcomes that people share that can make others nervous about what happens in family court.

Some people have heard exaggerated tales of parents unfairly denied access to their children or spouses receiving far less than their fair share of marital property. Especially given misconceptions about community property statutes, people often feel very anxious about the potential outcome of divorce proceedings. They may worry that they could spend years rebuilding financially or end up saddled with responsibility for their spouses’ debts.

Do those divorcing in California have to help pay off a spouse’s financial obligations?

Debts can be part of one’s marital estate

California’s community property laws apply to both the resources that people have accumulated and often the debts that they have to pay as well. Couples or judges typically need to look at the totality of the marital estate when deciding how to divide ownership of marital property and responsibility for marital debts.

The courts expect spouses to share in what they accumulated or earned during the marriage. They also expect them to share responsibility for debts taken on during the marriage. Couples can potentially propose property and debt division terms that they agree are fair. Otherwise, they must wait for a family law judge to apply community property rules to their marital estate.

A judge could theoretically make a spouse with a higher income responsible for more of the debts accrued during the marriage. They could also make someone responsible for more debt if they receive a larger portion of the marital assets.

It is sometimes necessary for one spouse to pay a credit card balance on an account held solely by the other spouse. Even student loans and personal loans could be subject to division in a California divorce. The date when someone took on the debt and the intent behind the debt help determine whether those obligations fall to both spouses or solely to one.

Debts that spouses hide, balances owed prior to marriage and obligations taken on as a form of marital dissipation may not be part of the marital estate. Otherwise, even accounts solely in the name of one spouse could potentially influence property division terms.

Those who understand how the courts may handle marital debts can use that knowledge when negotiating property division settlements. Employing an informed approach to financial matters can take a lot of stress out of California divorce proceedings.


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John T. Chamberlin, Attorney at Law
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