How marriage affects student loans — what to do if you or your spouse is in debt

Student loans and marriage aren't always a perfect match. (iStock)

Getting married means learning to manage money as a team. For many couples, that involves figuring out a plan for tackling student loans. While marriage doesn't automatically make your spouse's student debt yours, or vice versa, you may have questions about how those loans could affect your financial plans.

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Am I responsible for my spouse's student loan debt? 

This is a common question surrounding marriage and student loans, and the short answer is no.

"Student loan debt that was taken out before you get married typically remains your own unless one spouse co-signs the other's private student loans," said Michael Bloch, CEO and founder of Pillar, a personal finance company that helps people get out of student loan debt faster.

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If you and your spouse co-sign on student loans together, either before or after marriage, you're both considered equally responsible for the resulting debt. That includes new loans used to pay for school and co-signed refinance loans for existing student debt.

Living in a community property state as a married couple can also add a wrinkle when dealing with student loans. Any loans you or your spouse had before the marriage would still be yours and yours alone. But new loans taken out after the marriage is finalized could be treated as community debts, meaning you're both on the hook for them.

What happens to student loans when the marriage ends?

While it's not pleasant to think about, it's also important to consider what happens to student loans if you get divorced or one of you passes away.

In the case of co-signed loans or student loans taken out after marriage in a community property state, it's possible that you'd both be expected to split the burden 50/50. Any debts you each brought into the marriage in your own names would still be yours as well.

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The rules for surviving spouses typically depend on what kind of loans are owed, whether they were co-signed and community property rules.

"According to the Department of Education, if a borrower of federal student loan debt dies, the loan is automatically canceled and the debt will be charged by the government," said Block. But with private student loans, you could still be responsible for any co-signed loans or community student debts after the marriage.

Will my partner's debt affect me?

There are several ways student loans can affect your finances after marriage. Here are some tips for paying off student loans and what that could mean for you financially.

1. Student debt and credit scores

It's a misconception to think that once you get married, your spouse's credit history merges with yours. Instead, you both maintain your own credit reports and scores even after tying the knot.

But student loans can affect your credit score if you co-signed on a loan for your spouse. Remember, co-signed loans legally belong to both parties. So even if you didn't use the loan yourself the account activity, including payments, could show up on your credit reports.

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2. Student loans and taxes

Taking advantage of the marriage tax break is a positive side effect of getting hitched. But you could lose another tax benefit associated with student loan debt.

Deducting interest paid against student loans can help reduce your taxable income for the year. But if your combined adjusted gross income exceeds the maximum threshold set by the IRS, you won't be able to claim this money-saving deduction.

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3. Monthly student loan payments

Last but not least, if you or your spouse are on an income-driven repayment plan to manage student debt, marriage could bring changes to your monthly payments.

The Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) plan, for instance, takes both spouses' income into account when calculating payments. Other plans give you the option to file separately so your spouse's income isn't included in your payment calculations.

The downside to that is potentially missing out on other tax breaks by filing separate returns. So, while you may get lower student loan payments, you could end up owing more in taxes.

Bloch said the most important thing married couples can do with regard to student loans is keeping the lines of communication open. Talking regularly about student debt can make formulating a plan for dealing with it less stressful.