Does the love of your life have a giant pile of student loan debt? If so, that’s not surprising. Approximately 70% of college graduates have at least some student debt—and the average amount of that debt is somewhere around $37,712.
It’s a common misconception that once you marry, you’re jointly responsible for your spouse’s student loan debt. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, you’re not. There are exceptions to this rule, however.
Here are answers to common questions about who exactly gets saddled with your spouse’s student loan when you marry.
When you get married, do you share debt?
If we’re talking about debt you incurred before marriage, the answer is no.
The picture changes when you’re talking about debt incurred after marriage, though. And part of that depends on where you live.
If you live in a common-law state, your spouse’s debts are rarely considered yours—unless you cosigned or, in some cases, took out the loan to pay joint expenses.
In community property states, the loans your spouse takes out after marriage are considered jointly owned. There are currently nine states with community property laws—and one, Alaska, where you can opt in.
In community property states, creditors can go after you to pay your spouse’s debt if your spouse dies or becomes insolvent.
Regardless of where you live, you could make decisions as a couple that result in sharing debt. For instance, if you cosign on your spouse’s loan, you will be held responsible if he or she can’t pay.
Will I be responsible for student loans my spouse incurred before marriage?
In both community property and common law states, all debts your spouse incurs before marriage stay solely their responsibility after you say “I do”—including student loans.
The only way that changes is if you do something to take on more responsibility—such as cosigning when your spouse refinances his or her student loans.
Will I be responsible for my spouse’s student loans after a divorce?
Not if your spouse incurred those debts before marriage.
If your spouse took out the loan after marriage, it depends on state law and the court. Community property states handle debt between married couples differently than common law states.
Divorce courts further complicate the issue. It’s not unusual for the court to allocate debts in a more nuanced way than by simply looking at the name on each loan. In some cases, courts consider professional degrees earned during the marriage as joint property.
This can have serious consequences in terms of whether you’ll be asked to chip in for your ex-spouse’s loans. In some cases, the higher-earning partner may be required to help pay off the lower earner’s student loans after divorce as a form of financial support.
And if your partner made big sacrifices to help put you through school—such as putting off his or her own career goals—you may be asked to compensate him or her for that help.
What happens to student loans when a spouse dies?
It depends on the type of loan and the state where you live.
Federal loans are automatically canceled when the borrower dies—they are not passed on to the surviving spouse.
Private loans don’t have that protection. Some lenders will discharge the loan in the event of the borrower’s death; others won’t. In community property states, private lenders are more likely to hold you responsible. Same if you cosigned on the loan.
Bear in mind that even if your spouse’s loan is discharged, you may have to pay taxes on the amount forgiven.
If you haven’t talked about with your spouse about how much student loan debt they have, now is the time to do it. Your partner’s debt will affect your life even if you aren’t likely to be held responsible for it.
If your spouse has a lot of student debt, you might want to consider refinancing. It can significantly reduce the payments you make every month, and help lessen the financial pressure on both of you.
Check out this Student Loan Refinancing Calculator to find out how much you could save.