One of the most difficult challenges couples confront these days is what to do when one of the partners is facing financial troubles — either because of a loss of a job, a nasty spending habit, or a medical or personal crisis. The question for the couple is whether this is “our” problem or “your” problem. There is usually a legal answer to this question, which generally depends on the marital status of the couple. If they are married or legally partnered, then most likely both partners are liable for the debts of the other, and they each have a legal duty to support each other. And, this is generally the law even if the couple doesn’t know about it. The grey area for same-sex couples is that many creditors are unaware of the consequences of domestic partnership or civil union registration, and national companies (such as credit card companies) may not in fact track down the partner for collection purposes. For an unmarried or unregistered couple, there is only joint liability if both partners have signed on to the debt as co-borrowers. This itself can be tricky, as sometimes a partner is added as an “additional user,” which doesn’t create joint liability.
Beyond the legal liability question, there is the broader emotional issue of each partner’s personal duty to take care of the other. This problem sometimes arises even for couples that are otherwise getting along, but it most pointedly arises when there are relationship conflicts, or where the couple is breaking up. Over and over again I meet with couples feuding over who is responsible for a particular debt or when one partner has a duty to support the other one financially.
The key to handling these difficult issues is to recognize the problem, learn the law that applies to your particular relationship given your particular marital status, and talk about the issues with your partner as soon as the problem arises. It won’t be an easy conversation, but the conflicts will only worsen if you delay the discussion.