Everyone knows that property gets divided in a divorce – but what happens to the divorcing couple’s debts? Are shared debts treated differently than debts which are held by individual spouses? And is it really possible to get stuck paying off your ex-husband or ex-wife’s bills? In this article, we’ll explain how Utah treats joint and personal debts incurred during (and before) marriage.
Am I Responsible for Paying Off My Spouse’s Personal Debts?
Let us preface this article by stating that judicial intervention is not always necessary. If you and your spouse are able to agree on how your debts should be divided, the court is likely to accept your plan provided it doesn’t violate any state or federal laws. However, as with child support and child custody in Utah, the court will be forced to intervene if you and your spouse are unable to come to an agreement on your own terms.
In the interest of keeping your divorce quick and simple as possible, you may want to try creating a debt division plan with your spouse. If it isn’t feasible to work it out on your own, or you simply don’t feel comfortable with the degree of financial planning involved in the task, you should seek assistance from an experienced family law lawyer.
Utah Code § 30-2-5 clearly states the following:
“Neither spouse is personally liable for the separate debts, obligations, or liabilities of the other.”
In other words, your personal debts are your own, and your spouse’s personal debts are their own. This applies to debts which were incurred both before and during the marriage. It also applies to personal debts which arise after the divorce, though there is an exception where spouses can be held liable for “reasonable and necessary medical and dental expenses” of children under age 18. (For example, if your minor child needs to get their wisdom teeth removed a few years after you get divorced, you could be required to help your ex pay for the procedure, or vice versa.)
The same statute also states that “the wages, earnings, property, rents, or other income of one spouse may not be reached by a creditor of the other spouse,” which means that, at least in theory, you should never get a letter or phone call from your ex’s creditors regarding a personal debt. Where joint debts are concerned, it gets a little more complex.
What To Do if Your Ex’s Creditors Are Contacting You About Joint Debts
Court orders regarding the division of joint debts are binding only for the spouses who are getting divorced. The judiciary plainly states that “creditors are not required to honor the division of joint debts, even if they have been notified of the [court] order” (unless the debt happens to involve those medical and dental expenses we mentioned earlier, in which case the order must be honored by the creditor).
If a collection agency is pestering you for a debt which was supposed to be paid off by your ex-wife or ex-husband, there are two steps you should take right away:
- Contact a Salt Lake City divorce attorney with experience handling matters of debt and property division.
- With help from your attorney, prepare and file a Motion for an Order to Show Cause with the appropriate court. You should also include a factual statement describing how your ex-husband or ex-wife failed to follow the court’s orders to pay off the debt in question.
Once the motion and statement have been filed, they will be reviewed by the appropriate court. If the court determines that the claim could have merit, a hearing will be scheduled. The point of the hearing is to give your ex-husband or -wife an opportunity to prove he or she is not in violation of court orders (and to get him or her to comply). If your ex fails to demonstrate good cause for non-payment, such as a major natural disaster or sudden medical emergency, he or she can be held in contempt of court, which can be penalized with fines and jail time in some cases.
Thanks to these penalties, all parties to a divorce have a strong incentive to comply with court orders regarding the division and payment of debts.
If you’re thinking about getting divorced in Salt Lake City or the surrounding counties, don’t start the process without getting free legal advice from an experienced family lawyer. To set up a free, completely confidential legal consultation, call attorney Darwin Overson at (801) 758-2287.
At the law offices of Overson Law, PLLC, our lines are always open, including nights and weekends. Our attorneys will answer all your questions about the Utah divorce process, educate you about your legal rights and responsibilities, and help you understand what steps to take next.