1

This is hypothetical. Person A and Person B are married. Person A cannot control the actions of Person B, because that would be domineering. If Person B makes a mistake that results in financial repercussions (maybe in the form of large fines, insurance deductibles, whatever), but does not have much money, will Person A (who works and saves for retirement) have to pay their spouse's obligation?

In other words, can one be financially ruined due to the actions of their spouse, when they have no real control over them?

2

A.fm. has accurately stated the general rule that a spouse is not automatically responsible for the other spouse's debts from property in the "innocent spouse's" name. There are some exceptions to it. Some of the more notable exceptions are as follows:

  1. Income tax debts of joint filers are generally joint and several, unless an "innocent spouse" exception exists.

  2. Many states have a "family car doctrine" that makes the "head(s) of household" responsible for injuries caused by anyone in the household with the family car.

  3. As a practical matter, if someone has a judgment lien on jointly owned property subject to a debt (for example, a house or a car), that could trigger a default on the loan and could also hurt the credit of the "innocent spouse" if the lien is not resolved.

  4. If the "guilty spouse" transfers as a gift assets into the "innocent spouse's" name knowing that this debt is out there, the creditor of the guilty spouse can probably reach the transferred assets if the make their claim soon enough because this is called a "fraudulent transfer".

  5. If the debt is incurred for "necessities" for the household, the other spouse is responsible for the debt.

Also, it is worth noting that usually, retirement savings are immune from creditors claims.

  • The "family car doctrine" exception is interesting. To get out of it, does one simply buy their spouse their own car, and have it registered in their spouse's name? Does the spouse have to use their own money to buy it? What if the "innocent spouse" is paying for insurance on that vehicle? – horse hair Oct 4 '17 at 16:53
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    @horsehair The only way to get out of the family car doctrine is to live in a different household. For example, there was a question about whether it applied in a case I litigated where the husband worked much of the year at a job in DC (where he was when the accident occurred), and the rest of the family lived at a home in Colorado. The case settled so that issue was never resolved on the merits, but that was the husband's only real defense in settlement negotiations. Car ownership, registration, insurance payment and source of funds to buy the car are irrelevant. – ohwilleke Oct 4 '17 at 16:55
  • Then what is the "family" in the term "family car"? Offhand it sounds like a family car is something different than an individual's primary car (i.e. a car only one member of the family uses)? – horse hair Oct 4 '17 at 17:10
1

This would vary by state, but generally under family law you are not liable for any debts your spouse incurs prior to marriage. Additionally, you’re generally not responsible for carrying out contracts made only in your spouses name. Thus, you likely would not be responsmible for debts accrued under said contracts.

Again, though, this varies based upon what sort of debt you’re talking about (business or personal?), how it arose, and whether you live in a common law or community property state. As usual, you shouldn’t take anything here as legal advice and should consult an attorney in your jurisdiction should this hypothetical ever become more realistic for you.

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    Thank you for the info on those. What about criminal debt (if that's the right word)? Say the spouse drunk drives, and hits someone, and is obligated to pay a fine they don't have the resources to pay themselves? – horse hair Oct 3 '17 at 16:31
1

tl;dr:

It depends on the rules you were married under, which are determined by state law and your prenuptial agreement.


Whether one spouse is responsible for the other spouse's debts depends on the applicable matrimonial regime of their marriage, which can vary depending on where and when thay married, and on the prenuptial agreement (if any).

In the United States, the matrimonial regime is mostly determined by state law, so it depends on the state under whose laws they couple was married. In most states, spouse's property is legally kept separate (separation of property):

  1. Common law is the dominant property system in the United States and has been adopted by 41 states.

  2. The theory underlying common law is that each spouse is a separate individual with separate legal and property rights. [...]

IRS, Internal Revenue Manuals, Part 25, 25.18.1.2.1 - Common Law

However, nine states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) and the U.S. Territories of Guam and Puerto Rico also have a community property system (which however does not necessarily apply to all marriages).

So, if separation of property applies to the marriage, one spouse is not liable for the other's debts (within the limitations described in ohwilleke's answer). If community property applies, then the spouse may be personally liable:

Community property includes all financial obligations (debts) accumulated during your marriage or domestic partnership. This is true even if the debt was incurred by only 1 of you, or even if a credit card was in the name of 1 spouse or partner only.

[...]

Your spouse or partner may have gotten into debt in his or her own name that you are not aware of. If the debt was incurred during your marriage or domestic partnership, it belongs to you too.

California Courts, Property and Debt in a Divorce or Legal Separation, Community and Quasi-Community Property

However, even in that case there may be limits or special rules that apply the liability - so you'll have to talk to a specialised lawyer to be sure.

  • That's an interesting angle from my point of view. This question isn't necessarily about me but, I personally was married in a foreign country then brought my wife to the US. We were never married here! – horse hair Oct 4 '17 at 16:55

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