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How Divorce Impacts Your Student Loan Debt


The division of student loan debt is one of the most pressing financial concerns for divorcing couples – a burden that can significantly shape both spouses’ financial futures. Typically, student loan debt incurred before the marriage is the responsibility of the person who took on the debt, while a student loan taken during the marriage may be the responsibility of both spouses, even after divorce. Here’s a deeper look at how divorce impacts your student loan debt.

A financial advisor can help you navigate the financial challenges of divorce. Find a fiduciary advisor today.

The Role of Student Loan Debt in a Divorce

In common law states, also known as equitable distribution states, the court divides marital property based on what it deems fair, which may not always be equal. Debts incurred by one spouse are typically considered separate unless they were used for the couple’s joint benefit. For instance, if one person’s education improved the couple’s overall standard of living, a court might view the debt as a shared responsibility.

On the other hand, in community property states, all assets and debts acquired during the marriage are generally considered jointly owned and are divided equally upon divorce. This means that even if the loan is in one spouse’s name, the other might still be held accountable for half of the debt if it was acquired during their marriage.

However, there are far fewer community property states than common law states. These include:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Who Pays Student Loan Debt After a Divorce?

How assets and debts, including student loan debt, are divided during a divorce depend on the type of state a couple lives in.

The distinction between separate and marital property is central in determining how student loan debt is allocated between former spouses. The most important question to answer is when the debt was incurred: before or during the marriage?

Pre-Marriage Debt

Typically, pre-marriage student loan debt is considered the individual responsibility of the spouse who incurred it before the marriage. This principle is rooted in common law and statutes, including the “doctrine of necessaries,” which holds that debts for necessary expenses incurred by one spouse before marriage do not automatically become the responsibility of the other spouse.

However, if a couple has co-signed for the debt or refinanced it together during the marriage, this could change the responsibility dynamics, potentially making both parties liable for repayment.

Marital Debt

What happens to the debts that a couple accumulates together during their marriage? Marital debt, which includes student loans taken out after saying “I do,” is often seen as a shared investment in the couple’s future. This type of debt is typically considered to have been incurred for the mutual benefit of the couple and is thus subject to division upon divorce.

The Uniform Marital Property Act and similar laws provide guidance on how to categorize and divide marital debt in the context of divorce, requiring a careful analysis of each spouse’s contributions and benefits derived from the debt during the marriage.

In community property states like Arizona, California and Texas, marital debt is treated as jointly owned, with the starting point being an equal division upon divorce. This includes student loans taken out during the marriage, regardless of which spouse pursued the education.

On the other hand, in equitable distribution states, the division of marital debt is not necessarily equal but is instead based on what is deemed fair and just. Factors considered include the length of the marriage, the financial situations of each spouse and their respective contributions to the marriage. Courts may examine the earning potential of each spouse, the purpose of the debt and who primarily benefited from the education.

What If I Co-signed My Spouse’s Loan?

When individuals co-sign a loan for their spouse, they may not fully appreciate the consequences of this decision, especially in the context of a potential divorce. Co-signing a loan is a significant financial commitment that binds the co-signer to the lender, making them equally responsible for the repayment of the debt. This arrangement is often necessary when one spouse lacks the creditworthiness to secure a loan independently.

A common misconception is that a divorce can dissolve this financial bond. But the co-signing agreement remains intact, irrespective of the dissolution of marriage. The divorce decree does not override the contract with the lender, which means that the co-signer’s obligation persists until the loan is fully repaid or refinanced in the borrower’s name. Understanding this is vital, as it can have long-lasting financial implications for the co-signer.

For co-signers to protect their financial interests in the event of a divorce, consider the following steps:

  1. Understand the full scope of your co-signing responsibilities, including potential impacts on your credit score and debt-to-income ratio.
  2. Stay informed about the loan’s status and ensure timely payments to avoid negative credit implications.
  3. Explore legal options, such as negotiating a refinancing arrangement that releases you from the loan obligation.

Dealing With Student Loan Debt Post-Divorce

A woman who recently went through a divorce looks over student loans.

After a divorce, an individual’s financial situation often changes, necessitating a recalculation of student loan payments. Income-driven repayment plans, such as the Income-Based Repayment (IBR), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), and Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) plans, can offer relief by capping monthly payments at a percentage of the borrower’s discretionary income, which is the income remaining after essential living expenses.

For example, the IBR plan generally sets payments at 10-15% of discretionary income and forgives any remaining debt after 20 to 25 years of qualifying payments. Post-divorce, individuals may update their income information to reflect their new earnings, potentially lowering their monthly obligations and providing much-needed financial relief. The recalibration of payment plans is not only a matter of financial prudence but also a step towards regaining financial stability in a new chapter of life.

Meanwhile, refinancing private student loans can be a strategic move for individuals seeking better interest rates and loan terms post-divorce. The refinancing process involves taking out a new loan with a private lender to pay off existing student loans, potentially leading to lower monthly payments or a shorter loan term. Eligibility for refinancing typically depends on the borrower’s credit score, income and debt-to-income ratio, which is a measure of your monthly debt payments compared to your income.

On the other hand, forbearance and deferment are temporary relief options that allow borrowers to pause or reduce payments. Forbearance can be granted for up to 12 months at a time, while deferment can last for a longer period, especially if the borrower is facing unemployment or returning to school. However, it’s important to note that interest may continue to accrue during forbearance, increasing the total amount owed, whereas deferment may not accrue interest on subsidized loans. These options should be considered carefully, as they can provide temporary respite but may also lead to increased financial obligations in the long term.

Bottom Line

How student loan debt is divided has far-reaching implications for both spouses in a divorce. Whether debt is considered pre-marital, marital, or co-signed, the legal principles and state laws governing its division are as varied as the individual circumstances of each case. You should therefore understand the differences between common law and community property states, as well as the timing and purpose of the debt and the binding nature of co-signing agreements.

Financial Tips for Divorcing Spouses

  • Reestablishing your own finances after a divorce can be challenging, especially if they’re been entwined with your former spouses’ for a long time. Financial planning after a divorce may include building your own emergency fund, updating your insurance policies, changing your tax filing status and paying a different marginal tax rate, among others.
  • Some financial advisors specialize in helping people who are going through a divorce. If you’re interested in finding one, look for an advisor who holds the certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) designation. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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