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Handling premarital debt in a New York divorce

When you get married, it legally changes your financial situation. Now everything you earn or acquire becomes marital property, unless a third party gifted or bequeathed something exclusively to you.

When you intermingle your finances after marriage, how does it affect your debt liability? If your spouse has student loans, credit card debt, and other obligations before saying, “I do,” are you equally responsible for them now that you’re married?

Debt incurred while single

In general, any debt that you incur while single will continue to be your sole responsibility after the marriage. For example, if you incurred student loan debt before you met your spouse and that obligation goes into arrears, the government or private lender can’t garnish your spouse’s paycheck or seize their assets.

There are exceptions. If you had a credit card and added your spouse as an authorized user after getting married, the card balance can become marital debt, and the issuer could go after both of you for nonpayment.

What about debt in your name only?

In community property states like Texas and Arizona, both spouses are liable for debt that either one of them takes out during the marriage, even if it is only in one person’s name. New York is an equitable distribution state, meaning that you are typically liable only for debt that’s in your name. There may be exceptions: for example, if you have a credit card that was used to buy food, clothing, and other necessities for the family, your spouse benefited from it even if the debt wasn’t in their name, and it may be divided accordingly if you divorce.

Premarital debt in divorce

As the example above shows, it is possible for the debt that your spouse accumulated before the marriage to become marital debt and subject to division upon divorce.

If you and your spouse cannot agree on how to share and divide all debt, a New York court will generally identify which obligations are separate, which ones are marital, and which ones fall into a gray area, such as the credit card mentioned above. You will each be responsible for your own separate debt, while the court will divide marital liabilities according to your circumstances. For example:

  • If you receive a car in the divorce, you will probably assume responsibility for any outstanding car payments.
  • If your spouse is granted the marital home, they may be required to carry on the mortgage themselves, unless their income and ability to pay recommends an alternative arrangement.

If you have questions or concerns about how premarital debt will be divided in your divorce, speak to a New York family law attorney who will help you understand how the law applies to your situation. Jayson Lutzky is a divorce lawyer with over 36 years of experience who handles cases in New York City. His office is in the Morris Park neighborhood of the Bronx. Call 718-329-9500 to set up a free initial in-office consultation.

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