Love and Money: What happens to student loan debt when you get married?


You fall in love with a person, not with their bank statements. The choice to get married comes with a whole lot of money conversations, though: What is the budget for our wedding? Do we want to combine our checking accounts? Oh, and is the clawing monster of your student loans going to jump on my back now, too?

A twentysomething in the United States who has student-loan debt carries an average of about $22,135. While much ballyhoo’s been made of millennials not progressing along with the usual life stages — probably because they can’t afford to — some of the generation is certainly still tying the knot, as you may have noticed from your Facebook feed. Figuring out if you’re about to share student loans in addition to a family and a closet is a great item to check off the marital to-do list.

The answer, like so many other financial issues, is both simple and really complicated. Here, we asked experts to explain.

Does your partner take on your student loan debt when you get married?

“Your loans are yours and yours alone. Your partner’s payment history will not affect you,” Brianna McGurran, a student-loan expert from Nerdwallet, said in a phone interview. The loans a person signs belong to that person, and a spouse does not assume liability for a loan that’s already opened.

Of course, if either of you choose to attend another school after the wedding, and you co-sign the loan, then yes, you would then be on the hook for repayment. “So for instance, two people get married, one of the partners decides they want to go to law school, and they need private loans to make up the difference in what they’re able to afford,” she said. “If one of the partners co-signs on those loans, then they are legally responsible for making payments if the primary borrower can’t afford to. And if you’re a co-signer, that loan does show up on your credit report.”

(When it comes to shared debts and divorce, outcomes can vary by state law, by scenario and by the arguments each side makes — so that’s a set of rules and advice for another day.)

Are there any exceptions?

While they used to be unpopular, more and more borrowers are enrolling in income-driven repayment plans for their federal student loans. These types of repayment plans are based on a borrower’s income and family size, instead of how much they owe, so that they’re not stuck with a $900 monthly payment when their take-home pay is $1,500 or some such.

If you’re getting married and “if you are in an income-driven plan, it can be very complicated,” Jan Miller, a student-loan consultant, said in a phone interview. “First of all, there are four different income-driven plans and of those four all of them require that you include the spouses’ income in the calculation for the payment if you’re filing your taxes jointly.” However, three of the four (all except the REPAYE plan) allow you to exclude your spouse’s income if you file your taxes separately.

As a couple, you’ll have to decide if the impact on your income-driven repayment plan outweighs the benefits of filing taxes together. It gets even more complicated if you both have student loans, and you’re both worried about your incomes feasibly paying them. You may want to sit with an accountant, money manager or student loan consultant like Miller to make the best decision for both of you.

“I get asked a lot of times, ‘Tell me, in general, what I should do,’” Miller said. But a one-size-fits-all recommendation rarely makes sense. “It depends on your gross income, your financial objectives, what your total amount of debt is, what programs you qualify for, what’s your qualified payment? There are dozens of variables that go into that question.”

Can your spouse be penalized if you pay late, or even default on your loans?

The worst nightmare for any loan borrower still wouldn’t affect their spouse legally, but it would impact the choices you make as a couple — specifically, your ability to make big purchases together like a car or home. “As a couple, you will most likely come to the mortgage lender together, and they’ll look at both of your debt loads and income,” McGurran said. “If you default on a student loan, and you and a partner then wanted to get a mortgage together, that would affect your credit worthiness for a mortgage.”

One person’s terrible history won’t preclude your family from buying a home, especially if the other partner can afford a down payment and mortgage based on the strength of their income and assets alone, McGurran said.

If you die, will your S.O. inherit your debt?

It’s sad, but simple. “The loan dies with them,” Miller said. “It cancels upon death, so it does not affect the estate, it doesn’t go to the spouse, none of that. It simply disappears.”

The exception, again, is if the couple co-signed on any of the loans, and after that, loan agreements vary by lender; McGurran advised couples to examine that aspect of their contract when they sign.

Does the same go for credit card debt?

A similar concept of the student loan weight applies to a credit card hole. If the card is in one person’s name, it’s that person’s responsibility; if the couple signed up for a joint card, then they’re both in trouble. “With credit cards, sometimes people are added as authorized users. Sometimes they share an account. And it can be tricky if you’re sharing,” McGurran said.

Money is one the most complicated issues in any marriage, as study after study demonstrates. But while there’s nothing pleasant about student loans, this may be one of the more cut-and-dry financial issues you face as a couple: Unless you sign up to be affected by your spouse’s loans, they won’t affect you.