Tessa focuses her practice on all aspects of family law, including divorce, equitable distribution, child and spousal support, custody, mediation, and domestic abuse in the greater Mount Laurel, NJ area. Tessa believes...Read More by Author
Addressing Your Spouse’s Debt in a Divorce
You and your spouse have separate credit cards. You utilize your credit cards sparingly to cover day-to-day expenses for your family and pay off the balances every month. Although you do not see your spouse’s monthly statements, you assume they manage their credit cards in the same manner. After several years of marriage, there has been a breakdown in your relationship, and you file for divorce. Through the discovery process, you learn that your spouse amassed tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt during the marriage. Your spouse claims the debt is marital and should be divided equally between the two of you. Could you be responsible for up to half of your spouse’s credit card debt?
In New Jersey, the general rule is that any debt accumulated during the marriage is considered marital debt and is therefore subject to equitable distribution. New Jersey law delineates that property subject to equitable distribution is that which was legally and beneficially acquired during the marriage. The key term here with respect to credit card debt is beneficially. In other words, the debt must have been incurred to benefit the family unit, not just one spouse. If the expenses which resulted in the credit card debt only benefit the debtor spouse to the exclusion of the other spouse and children, it will be the sole liability of the debtor spouse. A benefit could be the acquisition of marital property or the maintenance of the marital lifestyle.
Therefore, your responsibility for your spouse’s credit card debt depends on how the debt was incurred. If your spouse’s credit card debt was incurred purchasing groceries, taking your family to dinner, family vacations, paying utilities, purchasing gifts for the family, and to pay for other family expenses, even if you were unaware that the balances were not being paid off, this debt benefited the marriage and may be subject to equitable distribution. Conversely, if your spouse was using the credit cards to go to lavish dinners above your marital lifestyle, covering expenses for a paramour, or gambling, just to name a few examples, this debt did not benefit the marriage, and a Court will likely find your spouse solely responsible for this debt.
The above scenario is unfortunately common and not limited to credit card debt. The debt incurred by one spouse could be, for example, a personal loan, a loan against a retirement account, or back tax payments for gambling income.
A family law attorney will work with you to uncover a spouse’s debts to which you may be liable and trace those debts to determine whether or not they should be subject to equitable distribution. If you are considering divorce and have questions about the allocation of your spouse’s debt, you can contact one of our family law attorneys to understand your options.
The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.