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Understanding student loan debt in divorce

If either spouse has incurred student loan debt during a marriage, determining who is responsible for these educational debts after a divorce is an important decision. Each case is different and there are no universal formulas. Sometimes, one spouse is liable, and in other cases, it’s a shared responsibility. The differences mostly depend on the state in which you reside and the terms of your divorce.

Factors in student loan debt and divorce

In most cases, where you live will influence the question of who will have to pay for the student loan debt. As a rule of thumb, the spouse who originally took out the loan is required to pay it, and this debt isn’t automatically transferrable. There are, however, factors that can make the spouse liable for the debt.

This typically falls under the guise of community property or equitable distribution states. And there are some cases in which both parties are responsible:

Community property. In a community property state, all debts and assets are owned by both spouses. Community property states are California, New Mexico, Louisiana, Nevada, Washington, Texas, Wisconsin, Arizona and Idaho. With community property states, even bankruptcies are discharged together, regardless of whether the other spouse filed.

Equitable distribution. This means that you take what you bring with you. If you incurred the debt before marriage, then this debt is not jointly owned. In these states, the court will ultimately decide the amounts owed.

When both spouses are responsible for student loan debt

In a situation where one spouse supported the other’s earning of the degree, either by helping to pay for it or by lending a substantial amount of personal time to help the other spouse achieve that goal, the supporting spouse may possibly receive some form of reimbursement.

Additionally, with an increase in income (which is considered beneficial to the “community,” as in “community money”), or other clear advantages as the result of an advance degree, a judge might deem both spouses responsible for the debt. This particularly applies to a situation where the supporting spouse paid off a considerable amount of the loan.

Getting reimbursed for your ex-spouses student loan debt

Although the responsibility typically lands on the spouse who receives the education, oftentimes a spouse will lend support by taking the community funds and applying them to the cost of the degree. In this case, you may be able to get some of the money back. If you paid part of your spouse’s student debts while you were married then it’s possible you could be eligible for reimbursement.

However, a judge would have to order this. It’s important that you consult with your lawyer about the specifics of your case and any strategies that might help you receive compensation for some of the money you invested in your spouse’s education.

Co-signing a student loan and responsibility

Co-signing any legal document for someone means that you are taking responsibility for the debt in case the individual is unable (or unwilling) to pay. The same rules apply to student loans. In many cases, if you sign the paperwork, it’s difficult to get out of fulfilling your role. Consequently, the terms of your divorce will determine if you are indeed responsible for your spouse’s debts. Even if you’re no longer married, the debtor has the legal right to pursue you for payment. It may be necessary for you to contact the family court to find some resolution if the Marital Settlement Agreement states that your spouse’s student loans are not your responsibility.

Student loans and alimony

The divorce decree may not be the end of student loan responsibility. In some rare cases, if a spouse is making a significant amount of money as a result of the degree (and the other spouse is left struggling financially), the judge could order that some spousal support be put in place. As such, this spousal support isn’t usually long-term.

If you need more information about student loans and spousal responsibility, be sure to contact a family law attorney.

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