The ability of a creditor to garnish a spouse’s bank account depends on the nature of the debt and the state you live in. In most states, an account that’s held solely in your spouse’s name can’t be garnished if the debt is in your name only and was not used for anything that benefited her. Joint accounts may be a different story, however, and creditors can occasionally persuade a judge to allow them access to a spouse’s account.
Generally speaking, a debt that is is your name is your responsibility alone. Your spouse's account cannot be garnished in most circumstances, although exceptions may apply if you share a joint account or if the expenses leading to the debt were used for their benefit.
When Judgments are Needed
Creditors win judgments against those named as a defendant, but these judgments don't allow creditors to move on to target other family members if the bills remain uncollectable otherwise. As a result, if the account the judgment was secured against is only in your name, accounts that your spouse holds in her own name are safe in most cases. It’s particularly difficult to garnish a spouse’s account if she’s held it since before you were married and if she’s the only one who contributes to it.
Community Property States
In a community property state like California, you and your spouse legally share assets and debts either of you incur during your marriage, with the exception of items acquired via gift or inheritance. That means a creditor may be able to garnish both joint accounts and an account the spouse holds separately. This depends on the specific state law regarding spousal debt. In California, creditors can generally garnish your spouse’s wages for a debt that you incurred when you were married. However, Texas is a community property state that does not allow creditors to garnish your account for your spouse’s debt if it is not a shared account.
Common Law States
Most common law states keep the property of each spouse separate, unless the debt was incurred jointly or benefited both spouses. This not only shields a spouse’s bank account in most cases, it has an impact on joint accounts as well. In some common law states, such as Iowa or Montana, creditors can garnish joint accounts for a debt held by only one spouse, but can only attach to half the funds in the account, or only to funds attributable to the debtor. In others, a debt by one spouse that didn’t benefit the other can’t be garnished via a joint account at all.
Exceptions to the Rule
Some scenarios may allow creditors to access a spouse’s account even in states where it’s prohibited. For example, if you transfer all of your assets into a joint account or an account held solely in your spouse's name, a creditor may be able to convince a judge that the transfer was designed solely to shield your resources from a lawfully obtained legal order. In that scenario, a judge may rule that a creditor may seize funds from that account as well.