The Law Q&A | When are you liable for your spouse's debts?

The Law Q&A | When are you liable for your spouse's debts?

Am I liable for my spouse's debts just because I'm married to my spouse? (Wait — as opposed to being married to someone else's spouse?)

Under Illinois law, the answer is mostly no.

Mostly.

All debts are created by an agreement by a party to undertake a pledge to pay for something given in exchange for the pledge (usually a loan or a purchase of a thing or service). The undertaking of the debt has to be voluntary. The party agreeing can do so directly or through an agent authorized by the person to enter into the agreement on behalf of the person.

A spouse is generally not an automatic agent binding the other spouse to the debt that the first spouse undertakes. So, if wifey enters into a credit card agreement with a bank, hubby is not liable for wifey's obligation to pay the monthly billings on that credit card.

Two big exceptions to this rule of spousal debts: medical bills and tax obligations owed the IRS.

Under Illinois law, a spouse is liable for all medical bills (doctor visits and/or hospitalization) when it was the other spouse who had the treatment. If wifey goes to the doctor and creates the charges, hubby is equally liable on the bill even if he didn't authorize her to be his agent for the bill. Heck, he may not have authorized her to go to the doctor in the first place. She never listens.

Under IRS regulations, if spouses file a joint return, it is presumed that both spouses are liable to the government for that tax debt. However, that presumption can be rebutted under the "innocent spouse" rule.

The innocent spouse is one where that spouse had no knowledge of the financial situation which created the tax debt. And that means no knowledge. Wasn't involved in generating the income, or in participating in any activity that pertained to the tax in question, or in preparing the return.

If separate returns are filed, then the separate filing spouse is much better insulated from the tax debt of the other spouse.

Under credit card law, when wifey is indebted on a credit card, hubby is not automatically so. This is true even though hubby might be a "designated user" on the card. A designated user is where the person who signed up on the account for the card can authorize another person to use that card.

That use does not generate a legal obligation by that designated user for the debt on that card. The obligation is only suffered by the person who signed up for the account.

And don't forget, on the medical bill situation, even if you and your spousal unit have insurance that covers that bill, that does not mean you guys are not liable to the clinic. You both are. It's just that the insurance carrier is liable to you to reimburse you on that bill.

So wifey, if hubby used your credit card to buy that latest set of pricy Titleist clubs after he denied doing so, it might be time to penalize his lie by terminating his designated user authority under your card so as to spare you the lateral hazard of future spouse-induced debt.

Brett Kepley is a lawyer with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation. You can send your questions to The Law Q&A, 302 N. First St., Champaign, IL 61820. Questions may be edited for space.