California is a “community property” state, which means that when you divorce, assets along with debts get divvied up between the spouses. It doesn’t matter who produced more during the marriage: everything gets divided between the partners.
The same is not true of assets and debts brought into the marriage. Those follow the originator. This is important when determining who pays student loans after a divorce.
A debt by one
When a couple is married, they assume both their assets and debts. During the marriage, the couple is responsible for paying off a student loan even if the loan was issued before their marriage.
During the marriage, any debt incurred by one spouse is shared by both – credit card debts, mortgages, auto loans and student debts among them. Just like any assets accrued during a marriage, debt is divvied up among the spouses after a divorce, death or annulment.
But debt and assets acquired before the marriage stay with the person who assumed them. This means that if your spouse has large student loans and you get a divorce, you may not be on the hook to pay them.
Consolidated loans and payments
There is one case where you could be on the hook for your spouse’s pre-marriage student loans. If, during your marriage, you consolidated student loans into a new loan, both spouses are responsible for that new loan after a divorce. It is considered to have been incurred at the date it was issued, regardless of when the original loans were issued.
Also, if you paid down your spouse’s student loans during the marriage, you can’t claw that money back. Money spent during the marriage stays with the marriage.
If you marry a Californian, you are less likely to incur incoming student debt than potential spouses from other states. Students from the Northeast and Midwest tend to accrue more student loan debt, likely due to the presence of many elite, private universities. States like California, however, have a robust public state university system that is both affordable and prestigious. More than 50 percent of Californians carry student loan debt for an average of $22,744, one of the lowest averages in the nation.