Dear Carrie: I'm getting married in six months. My fiance and I both have steady jobs, but he has a lot more debt than I do, especially student loans. Once we're married, am I also responsible for his debts? I want to be a good partner, but this kind of scares me. --A Reader
Dear Reader: This is a great question, and you're very smart to be asking it now. As much as we all want to focus only on romance as we approach marriage, finance also plays an important part in a happy and long-lasting relationship.
To initially put your mind at rest, no, you aren't legally responsible for debts your fiance incurred before your marriage. But to me, as a good partner, you can't just ignore his situation and hope he has the money to pay them off himself. The two of you really need to have a serious discussion about your overall finances, including how you'll handle individual past debts, as well as any debts you take on as a couple.
START WITH THE BIG PICTURE
The first thing to do is to figure out how much financial togetherness you want. Do you plan to pool all your money or would you each prefer to have a bit of financial independence? There's no right or wrong approach. Some couples have joint accounts for everything. Others prefer to keep separate accounts for personal expenses and a joint account for household expenses -- ditto for savings. Talk about your individual and mutual savings goals and prioritize them. For instance, if a down payment on a house is your No. 1 mutual goal, you can decide together how much you'll each contribute toward it. But let's say one of you wants a new car, might that be considered an individual savings goal?
ZERO IN ON DEBT
Past debts can be handled the same way, either separately or together. But first, distinguish between consumer and student debt. Not only is credit card debt expensive, but it could indicate a spending problem that you both need to address. Student loan debt is entirely different. It generally carries a much lower interest rate, it's for a positive and mutually beneficial end, and it isn't a ding on your credit rating unless you miss a payment.
Also, look at your feelings. Will you be resentful if you help him pay his debts? Personally, I would be more inclined to help my new husband pay down a student loan than a car loan. On the other hand, will you be able to achieve your mutual goals more quickly if you pay off your debts together? Successful relationships are built on compromise. You both have to be open and honest as you figure out what is fair and appropriate for your marriage.