The question of whether a spouse can be held liable for the debts of the other spouse is often asked from married (or to be married) couples, but the answer is not uniform and depends largely on the laws of the state where you reside.
MOST STATES – COMMON LAW TREATMENT
The large majority of states that are NOT one of the nine “community property” states discussed below operate under the “common law” system, derived from Great Britain. In these common law states, the liabilities of married couples are generally determined under the “title” theory, meaning whichever spouse is on title for the asset owns the asset, and whichever spouse was responsible for incurring the debt is solely responsible for that debt. Spouses in common law states are generally not jointly liable for debts unless they both are involved in procuring the debt as a “joint debt.” As a result, if a married individual in a common law state alone incurs a debt, the creditor would generally be limited to recovering from that individual’s assets only, and no recovery could be made from assets titled in the name of that individual’s spouse. On the surface, this would encourage married couples to segregate their finances so that valuable assets are held in the name of the spouse with lessor risk, and corresponding debts in the name of the spouse with higher risk. However, these rules are very state specific and, of course, moving your assets around when a creditor is already on the horizon raises fraudulent conveyance concerns, and so any asset protection planning should be done before the need arises.
Some common law states create an exception to the “title” rule for debts that are deemed for “necessities” or for “family expenses.” In those states, spouses may be jointly liable for debts that are necessary for the family such as education, household, or medical debt even if the debt was obtained by one spouse only. States also vary in how broadly they define debts deemed to be “necessities” or for “family expenses,” and so it is important to understand how your state defines these terms to understand under what circumstances a creditor can attach the assets of a both spouses for the debts of only one. Other states impose joint liability if the liability was created when a spouse was deemed to be acting as an agent of the other spouse, and so anyone concerned about spousal liability would need to familiarize themselves with the rules unique to their state.
TENANCY BY THE ENTIRETIES
In states that recognize “tenancy by the entireties,” assets owned jointly by the spouses as “tenants by the entireties” are deemed to be owned by the couple as a whole, and not owned by each spouse individually. In these jurisdictions, a creditor of one spouse is generally unable to attach property owned “by the entireties” unless the other spouse also joined in the creation of the debt. Therefore married couples in states that allow “tenancy by the entireties” often hold valuable real estate in this manner which can provide effective asset protection against creditors of just one of the spouses. Again, these rules are not uniform as some states may find that a debt entered into by one spouse is nevertheless a joint debt if the non-debtor spouses knows, benefits, consents or ratifies the debt.
In the nine community property states (CA, AZ, TX, WA, ID, NV, NM, WI, and LA) which derives their marital property law from the Spanish system, each spouse in a marriage is deemed to own a ½ interest in assets that are deemed community property. Since each spouse has a half-interest their individual debts could be attached and satisfied by a creditor against their 1/2 interest. Therefore, by contrast to the common law system which relies heavily on “title,” the key component in community property states is not who owns the property, but how the property is characterized. For these reasons, experts generally agree that community property states are more creditor friendly than their common law counterparts. For example, assume a couple consisting of a primary wage earner and a homemaker. The wage earner purchases a house during marriage using wages from employment, and takes title in the wage earner’s name only. The homemaker then gets into a car accident which is not fully covered by insurance. The resulting liabilities would obviously depend on the specific state but generally, in a common law state, the house could be protected from the homemaker’s liabilities because title is held in the wage earner’s name only, whereas in a community property state, ½ of the house could be exposed because the property would likely be deemed community property which the homemaker owns a ½ interest. Therefore, marriage in a community property state could effectively expand the potential assets that creditors of either spouse can reach to the extent a married couple acquires assets characterized as community property.
Since exposure of assets in community property states depends on characterization, there is an incentive for married residents in community property states to consider marital property agreements that alter the characterization of assets (i.e. pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreements). The procedural requirements to form an enforceable marital property agreement, and the extent to which such agreement will protect your assets will depend on the laws of the state. Therefore, consulting with an expert who understands these nuances in the respective state is essential to ensure that any asset protection goals are maximized.
Any married individual concerned about asset protection would be well served to understand the specific rules in your state governing the exposure of your assets to creditors, what tools exist in your state to mitigate your exposure to spousal liability, and how to utilize these tools in a manner that maximizes your protection in the event of an unforeseen liability. Most important is the need to engage in this planning before it is actually needed as any planning done when a creditor is already in the fray may be vulnerable to attack as a fraudulent conveyance.