Married with debt: How to deal with an indebted spouse

Couple in debt. (Photo: Getty Images)
Couple in debt. (Photo: Getty Images)

“For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. For richer or for poorer.” Remember reciting those vows on your wedding day?

Most couples uttering those word on their big day were probably thinking about the beautiful new life they plan on building together.

Very few, however, were probably thinking of the commitment one makes when marrying someone who has a great deal of debt.

If you think this couldn’t happen to you, think again.

According to a 2015 World Bank Report, South Africa is the most indebted country in the world. So, if you are married, or are planning on doing so, the chances of you marrying someone living in debt is not entirely unlikely.

Debt can place significant emotional and financial strain on any relationship, and money woes are frequently cited as one of the main reasons for couples calling it quits. However, debt’s impact on a relationship stretches well beyond stress and day-to-day money matters.

“Many people tend to overlook the implications of a bad credit rating,” explains Ian Wason, CEO of DebtBusters. “Not only will you have difficulty securing a proper loan to buy a home or a car, many employers also take your credit rating into account before they decide to employ you.”

If your spouse is indebted, and you are committed to making your marriage work, there are a few things to bear in mind:

Be open and honest with each other about your financial histories and credit scores.

You and your spouse or partner should disclose any existing debt, credit cards or student loans to each other. You could make use of a service like Kudough to check both of your credit scores. By having a look at each other’s credit reports, you can introduce an important element to your relationship: honesty.

You are not responsible for, nor do you inherit, your spouse’s past debt.

Even if you open joint bank accounts once you’ve tied the knot, any debt your spouse has incurred before your marriage will remain theirs and your past credit histories will remain separate.

Married in community of property?

If you are married in community of property, as a couple you are classified as one single joint estate in the eyes of the law. This means all assets the two of you have accumulated, and all the debts both of you have incurred during your marriage, are also considered as joint. You will both remain responsible for the repayment of this debt.

Try to keep your finances separate

You can do this by keeping your bank accounts separate and also have a frank discussion about day-to-day money matters and who pays for what expenses. Consider setting up a budget (with designated roles for both of you) and sticking to it.

Be supportive of your spouse and their journey out of debt.

Rather than make them feel bad about whatever debt they have incurred, suggest constructive ways for them to get out of debt by referring them to a debt management service.