Only debts that are formally joint debts such as joint bank accounts or mortgages can be definitely linked to you.
However, if a spouse is an additional cardholder on a credit card, for example, the main cardholder is responsible for all the debt.
Spousal debt can also impact our credit reports, so you should act to break the financial link between you and your spouse as soon as possible.
When are you liable for a spouse's debt?
There's a legal difference between debts that are held jointly between a married couple and debts that your spouse is solely responsible for.
So, when a relationship breaks down and there is debt involved, there can be confusion about who is liable for the debt and who can be forced to pay.
If a creditor is chasing a debt or making threats about issuing County Court Judgements (CCJs), it can be stressful if you don't believe you're liable for the debts involved.
To get a clear idea of how much debt you might be liable to pay, it's important to separate out which debts are joint ones and which creditors might therefore have a legitimate claim against you.
For the most part, a person can only be held responsible for debts when they are either in their own name or held jointly with someone else. So, you can't be held responsible for a bank account solely in your spouse's name, but you can for one held in joint names.
Joint liability doesn't just mean that a person is responsible for their half of the debt. If the other person refuses to pay, creditors can demand that the person who is joint liable repay the full amount of the debt.
Examples of joint liability debts:
- Mortgages and tenancy agreements in joint names
- Joint bank accounts and overdraft
- Unsecured personal loans in both names
- Bills addressed to both names
- Catalogue debt in joint names
Sometimes, debts that are solely in one name might be liable for payment by their spouse if, for example, the spouse is living in the property issued with a council tax demand and has been for some time.
If you're uncertain whether a certain debt is a joint one, seek professional advice before taking any action on that debt. This could be through a charity helpline or by talking to the creditors to check which names are liable for the payment.
Credit cards are often misconstrued as a source of joint credit when, in legal terms, credit card liability can only be held by one person in the UK.
Many people will add spouses and partners to their credit cards as an "additional cardholder". This allows that person access to the credit card account so they can use the credit and credit limit in the same way the original cardholder can.
However, additional cardholders are not responsible for the debt on the card. This means they can potentially run up large debts and they don't have to take responsibility for it.
Only one person can sign a credit card agreement and so that person, the original cardholder, is liable for all the debts attached to a credit account.
If any type of credit card fraud has been committed such as a spouse stealing a card and making a huge purchase when they are not an additional cardholder, this could be a different matter and it might be necessary to get the police involved to prove you're not liable for the debt and the card was stolen.
Tip: If you've applied for a credit card and there are trust issues between you and your spouse or ex-spouse, make sure you know when it will arrive to avoid potential fraud or theft.
Marriage doesn't equal liability
Being married to someone (or simply living together) does not mean that debts are automatically held in joint names.
However, if a divorce or civil partnership split goes through court, debts and assets might be split differently. There's more on this later but, as there's no legal aid for divorce and separation, this option is often unavailable for many people and offers no guarantees.
Unfortunately, if debts are held in joint names, you have no choice but to pay them or come to an arrangement with creditors to pay them.
There are steps you can take after this to cut the financial link between you and your spouse to prevent any possibility of joint liability in the future. We look more closely at this in the next section.
Can a partner's debt problems affect your credit rating?
Marriage itself does not link you financially to your spouse and, if all credit and debts are kept by the individual partners, there is no financial link between them.
It's a common misconception that marriage causes two individual credit records to automatically merge together. Unless you make joint credit applications together, there will be no link between your credit records.
If there is a financial link with your spouse within your credit history, though, it's important to break that link as soon as you can. This works to prevent your spouse running up more debts in your name while your credit accounts are linked together.
What counts as a financial link?
When you share a bank account, mortgage, loan or any other financial product with another person, this means that your individual credit records are linked from the perspective of credit reference agencies.
This allows credit checks to account for the credit worthiness of an individual based on both their circumstances and the circumstances of those they share credit (and debt) with.
Breaking these links not only stops any further debt being accrued in your name, it also signals to creditors there is no ongoing relationship. This can be useful if you're trying to come to agreements with them.
To understand the financial links between you and your spouse, you'll probably need to see a copy of your credit scores with the three main credit agencies in the UK: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion (formerly Callcredit).
As well as details of debts, CCJs and file searches, credit reports will also show when we have a financial association to another person and whether their record is likely to be affecting yours.
We've got more on how to access your credit report in our dedicated guide.
Notice of Disassociation
If you're financially linked to your spouse or ex through your credit reports, you can formally request that link is broken.
A Notice of Disassociation is a request to credit agencies to unlink individuals who are financially linked and demonstrates to potential lenders and creditors that a couple is no longer together.
To be successful when requesting one of these notices, applicants will need to ensure there is no active financial link between them and their spouse.
So, for instance, closing any joint bank accounts should be high on your list of priorities, but applying to the credit agency to have that joint account removed from your credit listing will disassociate you from your spouse.
If the only financial link between two individuals is a joint mortgage, a Notice of Disassociation can be applied for to demonstrate the relationship has ended.
Bear in mind that a Notice of Dissociation is only likely to be successful if a couple has been living apart for more than six months and has the financial records to prove it - i.e. individual bill payments for different properties.
Protective Registration service
If you think there might be further attempts by your spouse to obtain credit in your name after you have split up, you might consider signing up to CIFAS's Protective Registration Service.
This costs £25 for two years and will ensure that any credit applications in your name from CIFAS-registered lenders will be subject to additional scrutiny.
It's not fool-proof, but it does act as another layer of protection against identity fraud and is useful to anyone who has been targeted by any type of identity fraudster in the past.
How to handle debt accrued in your name
Now that you've taken steps to stop further debt being incurred on your accounts, how do you go about dealing with the debts which have been accrued in your name?
If possible, resolving the matter informally between you and your spouse is the least stressful option. For couples who have other connections such as children, this is the option which will cause the least animosity.
For spouses who are willing to accept the debt, you can liaise with the creditors and having the debt transferred solely to them. Of course, this is sometimes impossible, especially if a partner believes they are unable to meet the financial obligations of the debt or if the creditor themselves don't believe it's possible.
Another option for ex-spouses to work together to solve the debt is for your partner to set up a standing order to pay either the creditor directly or transfer money into your account each month.
It might also be possible to borrow from family and friends to help clear the debts - although these options should be approached with caution.
Speak to creditors
Many people are apprehensive about speaking to creditors yet keeping them updated is often the best way of maintaining some control over the situation.
Learn what you can about the debt and show willing to help. For instance, if the creditors are unaware of your spouse's whereabouts, telling them could be the difference between you being forced to pay the entire debt or the creditors pursuing your spouse too.
Recognise that, as you're liable for the debt by law, being as helpful as possible means that creditors will be more likely to try and accommodate your payment limitations.
It's always best to do this early on before a debt is passed to a debt recovery agency as they are less likely to deal with you sympathetically because they work on a results basis.
Get debt advice
There are various charities across the UK who deal with spousal debt issues every day and can advise on your options.
The most well-know is Citizens Advice, but there are other charities operating in different areas and there will be local debt advice options available too.
As we make clear in our guide, we would recommend steering clear of debt management companies who charge fees for their services and are profit motivated.
To learn more about why we recommend avoiding these companies, read our comparison guide looking at debt management firms and debt charities.
IVA and bankruptcy options
Taking responsibility for debt that you don't feel belongs to you is difficult but, if you are legally liable, attempting to clear the debt will help to improve your own credit record in the long term.
In some cases, this isn't possible, and that's where an IVA (Individual Voluntary Arrangement) or bankruptcy become real options. They form legally binding agreements between you and your creditors.
An IVA is more flexible than simply going bankrupt and might be preferable if you own assets you don't want to lose or if your job is at risk from bankruptcy.
It constitutes a binding agreement between you and your creditors that you will pay money towards your debt and should not be considered by people who know they can't make those payments.
Bankruptcy is the most serious debt solution and is considered the last resort for many. It can have more negative side-effects than an IVA and could affect the credit rating of others in your household.
So far, we've mainly focused on debts which may have been incurred by a spouse, but which were obtained legally via joint accounts, joint agreements or additional credit cards. However, different rules might apply if you have been a victim of economic abuse.
This is a form of domestic abuse when a person does not have control over their finances, meaning that they are completely controlled by their partner. It might be that a wife has to ask her husband for money and doesn't have access to her own debit card.
Economic abuse is a barrier to a spouse exiting a relationship and was included in the Domestic Abuse Act that became law in 2021, marking the first time this type of abuse has been legally recognised as a distinct issue.
The Act defines economic abuse as any type of behaviour that can affect an individual's ability to:
- Acquire, use or maintain money or other property
- Obtain goods or services
If a person has been in a relationship where credit has been taken out in their name but they consider themselves a victim of economic abuse, this may help with legal proceedings and could make the spouse take responsibility for the debt.
Thanks to campaigners, the Act also recognises that abuse can take place after a separation, meaning economic abuse could also be considered to take place after a break-up.
Once again, we'd recommend seeking advice from charities if you think this might apply to you. However, be proactive about it and talk about it as early as you can rather than raising it as a defence at a late stage when creditors are circling.
Many people who have been damaged by their spouses running up debt in their name are likely to be far more cautious in their future financial dealings to prevent it happening again.
If you are still in a relationship with that person, taking steps to limit your financial liabilities by closing joint accounts might be an option. Even so, joint liabilities such as mortgages could result in further issues if your partner eventually goes bankrupt, for instance.
While these conversations can be tricky, especially with a new partner just prior to a life-changing event like moving in together or getting married, both of you are at risk financially if you don't settle these matters first.
Make it a habit to check your credit report annually to check whether any financial links have been added or to help you understand why your credit score is preventing you from obtaining credit in certain situations.
Finally, remember the support offered by charities across the UK doesn't just extend to financial support and advice. If you need emotional support or feel as though your debts are overwhelming, you might consider talking to the Samaritans on 116 123.
Summary: Understand your liability
Accepting responsibility for debts accrued by a spouse that you don't necessarily believe you're liable for is a frustrating experience.
However, if you have a joint account or a joint financial product with another person, this is a risk, albeit one you can mitigate by keeping an eye on your credit report and acting to sever the financial link between you and them.
Remember these three main steps:
- Find out whether the debt is genuinely a joint one (is it in both names?)
- Try to come to an amicable resolution or work out a way forward with creditors
- Act to cut the financial link to the spouse and recover a credit rating
Over the years, we've covered suggestions that relationships can boost savings and that couples need to discuss money more often, but the truth is that sometimes a relationship is bad for our finances and personal credit history.
Breaking those links as soon as we can and ensuring we repair our own credit ratings can at least help us in the future.