wikiHow to Divide Debt in a Divorce

Four Parts:Preparing for Debt DistributionAssigning Secured Marital DebtDividing Unsecured Marital DebtDealing with Tax Debt

Divorce is both an ending and a new beginning. Unfortunately, too many marriages end because of financial and debt issues. A study by the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts cited money issues as the third leading cause of divorce.[1] Even though your marriage is ending, taking a reasoned look at debt distribution can smooth the divorce process and clear the way for your new life.[2]

Part 1
Preparing for Debt Distribution

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    Gather the documentation. To accurately and fairly assess your debt situation, you and your spouse need to get recent statements for all debts including mortgages, vehicle loans, credit cards, bank loans, business credit lines, tax statements, student loans, and outstanding invoices on medical and legal bills. When in doubt, include it in the analysis.
    • Also produce recent income information. Pay stubs or W-2 forms for employment and a profit-loss statement for businesses. This will help with the equitable distribution of the debts.
    • Equitable distribution doesn't necessarily mean 50/50. Equitable distribution takes into account factors such as earning capacity, age, health, child-rearing responsibilities, and education. For debt distribution, the court will not "punish" one spouse for wrong-doing such as adultery. Despite the reason for the divorce, the court will only look at economic fairness.
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    Categorize your debts. There are three basic categories of debt that may come up in a divorce. Each has its own pitfalls and must be handled properly to ensure you won't be left responsible for bills that could last for years after your divorce. Using the account statements, divide your debts into secured, unsecured, and tax-related. [3]
    • Secured debt are loans that are backed up by collateral. The most common secured debts are mortgages on real estate and chattel loans on vehicles including cars, boats, and recreational vehicles.[4]
    • Unsecured debt is not attached to any property. Typical unsecured debt is credit cards and bank credit lines. Medical bills are also considered to be unsecured debt.[5]
    • Tax debt can be federal or state. If you and your spouse filed a joint return, you may be liable for the total debt.[6]
    • Divorce expenses can pile up while you and your spouse are sorting things out. Attorney fees, court ordered mediation, appraisals, moving, and paying for a second residence can result in bills that need to be looked at during the allocation of debt.[7]
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    Identify debts as marital or separate. In general, debts that were acquired after the marriage in the name of both parties are considered joint marital debt. A common example is a mortgage in both names. Separate debt includes credit cards held in one party's name, medical bills, student loans (unless the spouse co-signed,) and accounts that existed before the marriage.
    • For credit cards to be true joint debt, each person's name must be on the account. If the other spouse is simply an authorized card holder, the debt is singular.[8]
    • Legal decisions on student loans are inconsistent. A few court cases have argued that student loans are the responsibility of both parties, especially if incurred during the marriage. However, in most cases, assume that student loans belong to the spouse that signed for them.[9]
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    Consider consulting with a lawyer or mediator. Even the most amicable of divorces can run into rough spots during property and debt division. A mediator will typically cost $100 to $300 per hour, but if the spouses can apportion the debt they can agree on and distill it down to the true disputes, then costs can be kept to a minimum.
    • A lawyer can review your proposed settlement and make suggestions on how to best protect both parties.

Part 2
Assigning Secured Marital Debt

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    Determine if you will keep or sell the property. Secured debt is unique as it is attached to property, usually a house or a vehicle. Sentimental feelings aside, the property secured by the debt usually has value in the market. In this case, asset and debt division go hand in hand.
    • If you are considering selling, you need to arrange for appraisals as soon as possible to determine if the expected sale price will satisfy the debt. This is especially important in volatile real estate markets where the marital residence may be "underwater," meaning the current market price would not pay off the mortgage.[10]
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    Consider an asset-debt swap. Not every piece of property has to be sold. As long as debts are allocated fairly, the judge is likely to accept the property settlement.
    • Regarding secured property, a typical "asset swap" would be vehicles. Even if they are titled jointly, couples will typically each take the vehicle they commonly drive. If there is an open car loan, the spouse takes the debt with the vehicle. If there is a disparity in the balances, other assets or debts can be taken or ceded to balance it out.
    • Another typical asset-debt swap is residential and business or vacation property. Each spouse assumes the mortgage and keeps the equity on their property with no payment to the other party.
    • The downside of separating debt this way is until you or your spouse refinances, both names remain on the loan. The property settlement should address what happens if the receiving spouse defaults on the loan. A typical clause would be that the other spouse can take possession of the property and continue paying the loan.
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    Explore an equity buy-out. The main criteria for a successful buy out of the equity is that the spouse retaining the property can refinance the loan in her own name and pay the agreed equity payment to the other party either in cash or property.
    • The benefit of an equity buy-out is that each party walks away with the jointly held debt satisfied and no further risk.
    • The downside of equity buy-outs is that until the spouse keeping the property refinances, the other spouse runs the risk of being held responsible for the mortgage or loan, even if they do not live in or use the property.

Part 3
Dividing Unsecured Marital Debt

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    Separate marital debt from individual debt. If a credit card is in one spouse's name only, it should be considered separate individual debt and that spouse should assume responsibility for it.
    • The main exception is when the separate debt is out-size compared to other debts and the spouse has a significantly lower earning capability. If taken to court, the judge will likely order the other spouse to take on some of that debt.
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    Divide jointly held unsecured debt. The split can be by account ("You take the VISA, I'll take the Mastercard,") or each balance can be apportioned. In a property settlement, one party can willingly assume debt in exchange for other assets. An example might be one spouse waiving claims to a retirement account in exchange for payment of an equivalent amount of credit card debt.
    • If one spouse has a higher earning capacity and can pay more of the unsecured debt, then other assets can be adjusted to keep the division fair.
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    Consider filing for bankruptcy. Payment priorities should be mortgages, child care, transportation, and utilities. If you and your spouse can't pay credit card and other unsecured debt, you should look into discharging the debt through bankruptcy.[11][12]
    • Bankruptcy is a highly specialized field of law and you will require the assistance of an attorney. Most offer a free consultation and you can match your goals to your budget.

Part 4
Dealing with Tax Debt

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    Determine which year the tax debt resulted from. If you and your spouse have filed jointly and been assessed tax debt, including penalties and interest, you will need to know which year and taxing jurisdiction it came from.
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    Investigate if you are eligible for Innocent Spouse Relief from the IRS.[13] There are three types of relief you can be considered for. The first is a total discharge of all tax liability. This is granted if you can show that you relied totally on your spouse and all the errors belong to him.[14]Next, the IRS can divide the liability between the parties. Instead of being responsible for the full amount, the debt will be equitably divided between you and your spouse.[15]The last is equitable relief where the IRS will abate interest, penalties, and possibly give you other credit toward the tax debt.[16]
    • Most states have a similar plan. Once you have worked things out with the IRS, contact your state tax authority. The same information and arguments can usually be used to reach a compromise on any state tax debt.
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    Create a payment plan. Once you have reduced the tax debt as far as you can, you will need to set up a payment plan with the IRS.[17]Payments can be made through the mail, by automatic bank draft, or through the Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS.)[18]
    • All future tax refunds will be garnished and applied to your tax debt until it is paid off.

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Categories: Divorce