Wisconsin is a marital property state. Therefore, all debts of the marriage are the equal responsibility of both parties. Any creditor can seek reimbursement from either spouse either through a garnishment or attaching marital assets. One way you can protect yourself from the debts of your spouse is to file for divorce or legal separation. The court in Wisconsin will then divide and allocate responsibility for the debt which exists at the time of the judgment. After a divorce or legal separation is granted, you are no longer responsible for the other party’s debts.
In the context of a divorce or legal separation, all property and debt is presumed to be equally divided at the time of the judgment in Wisconsin. But, what if one spouse is responsible for incurring more of the debt, such as credit card bills? What if you didn’t even know about those credit cards? Many people ask in that situation, do I have to pay my spouse’s credit cards in a divorce in Wisconsin?
We often see a situation where there is a large amount of credit card debt or business debt of which one spouse was unaware. However, there are different explanations for this. Sometimes, a person is irresponsible or has a spending addiction. On the other hand, there are situations where one spouse controls the money and refuses to give the other spouse money which leads to having to use credit cards just to buy the basic necessities.
The court will look at the details of your case when deciding whether the presumption of an equal division of debt should apply. If the debt is generally for “marital purposes” such as clothing, food, gas, etc., then the court will still generally order that credit card debt to be equally divided. On this issue, Wisconsin courts have ruled that a marriage is a partnership. In many marriages, spouses often disagree about certain issues. Spending is one of them. Some people are savers and some are spenders. Even though you may not have always agreed during your marriage that your spouse should have been using the credit cards or charged more than you thought was appropriate, does not mean that you are not responsible for that debt upon divorce.
However, if the credit card debt resulted from what is called “marital waste”, then the court may deviate from that equal presumption. Marital waste is defined as dissipation of marital assets for a non-marital purpose. This could be spending related to gambling, drugs and alcohol or even related to an affair. In these situations, the non-incurring spouse will most likely not be held responsible for that debt.
There are situations which do not fall neatly into one of these two categories (marital waste v. non-marital waste). In those cases, the court will have to take a close look at all of the facts and circumstances when making a decision as it is required to consider a result which is fair and equitable to both parties.
For more information, please see our website at Nelson, Krueger & Millenbach, LLC.
–Teri M Nelson