When a debt goes unpaid, the creditor may resort to legal action to force the debtor to pay up. If the creditor wins a judgment, the creditor tries to levy the debtor's bank account or garnish the debtor's wages. In most cases, the person who incurred the debt is solely responsible for paying it, but there are some situations where a wife's wages can be garnished to pay a husband's debts, and vice versa.
Establishing Joint Liability
The majority of states are "common law" states, which means that people are only responsible for debts that are in their own names. If you live in a common law state, this means that any debts your husband ran up in his name would be his responsibility alone, regardless of whether the debts were incurred before or after you were married. If you agree to co-sign a loan for your spouse or act as guarantor, though, you then become jointly liable with your spouse for the debt. This means that a creditor can sue one or both of you for the debt, and you could both be subject to wage garnishment.
Community Property States
In a "community property" state, such as California, obligations that were incurred by one spouse after marriage are generally considered to be joint debts. You would not share liability for any debts that either partner brought into the marriage individually. Since eligible debts are considered to be shared under community property laws, it's possible that a creditor could garnish your wages or seize joint assets, even if the debt is not in your name. Some community property states, such as Texas, have specific rules for determining when spouses are jointly liable for debts.
Doctrine of Necessaries
Depending on where you live, you may also be held responsible for a husband's debts if your state enforces the "doctrine of necessaries." The doctrine is a provision of English common law that says that spouses are responsible for certain necessary expenses, including food, housing and clothing. In states where the necessaries rule is still observed, including California, Colorado and Delaware, creditors can also use the doctrine to hold one spouse responsible for the other's medical debts. If a creditor is attempting to sue you under the doctrine of necessaries, you may be able to avoid a judgment if you can prove that you and your spouse were separated at the time the debt was incurred.
Debts and Divorce
If you're going through a divorce, it's possible that the judge may assign you liability for credit cards or other debts, even if they were actually incurred by your spouse. If the debt's not in your name and you live in a common law state, the creditor can't attempt to garnish your wages, but if you don't pay court-assigned liability and your spouse is sued, he can seek a judgment against you for violating the court order. If your husband runs up new debts after the divorce is finalized, you would not be responsible unless you act as a co-signer or co-borrower.