Till Debt Do Us Part: How Do You Talk to Your Spouse About Managing Debt After Death or in the Case of Divorce?

The topic of how to manage debt after the death of your spouse or the possibility that you and your spouse won’t stay together may never feel like a topic you’re prepared to discuss. However, avoiding the thought of worst-case-scenarios will only make them more painful if they ever do become a reality. Below we’ve outlined a few things to consider.

Where do you live and how will this impact your conversation?

If a married couple lives in one of the nine community property states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and in some cases Alaska), they are given equal shares of the properties and debts incurred during their marriage, which are called community properties. This means that in the case of death, the surviving spouse is responsible for any unpaid debts that incurred during the marriage regardless of whose name is on the bill. However, couples who live in non-community property states are only responsible for paying debts on joint accounts they held together during their marriage.

Are you responsible for your ex-spouse's debts?

In some cases, divorced spouses of the deceased are responsible for remaining debts that were allocated during the divorce settlement. If, for example, a deceased ex-spouse failed to pay off a joint credit card that they accepted responsibility for during the divorce settlement, the surviving spouse is legally responsible for paying it off. Similarly, if you were granted ownership of community property in a divorce settlement, debt collectors can claim the property as collateral for your deceased ex-spouse’s debts. Laws vary by state, and it’s important to understand how a spouse’s or ex-spouse’s debts will impact you financially at every stage of your marriage.

What are your children's financial responsibilities?

Other heirs of the deceased such as children and dependents (non-spousal heirs), can only be held responsible for accounts on which they were a cosigner (such as a college loan).


Because every situation is unique, we recommend including your banker in your financial planning to make sure you’re as prepared as possible for unexpected circumstances. Call Citizens Bank today to speak with one of our banking specialists about how to approach long-term debt management.