Upon divorce, many people find that they are still saddled with substantial educational debt. So, where does that debt go? It depends. California is a community property state. When a couple divorces, each spouse receives fifty percent of all assets earned during the marriage. Similarly, a couple must split whatever debts they have acquired during the marriage. (For example, if you owe $10,000 on a particular credit card, each spouse is responsible for $5,000 of that debt or a debt of equal value.) Simple enough, right?
Not always. The allocation of educational debt at divorce can look much different. “A loan incurred during marriage for the education or training of [one spouse] shall not be included among the liabilities of the community for the purpose of division….but shall be assigned for payment by the [student spouse].”*
It is sometimes said that “the debt follows the debtor” in this situation. Usually, the student-spouse will keep the loan taken out for his or her education. Take, for example, the situation where a husband takes out a loan (in his name) to pay for his wife’s nursing credential. There, it is likely that the wife will be solely responsible for paying off that debt after dissolution, not her husband. (So, if you and your spouse have no debt except for your spouse’s student loans, you may be able to walk away from the marriage debt-free!)
On the other hand, however, the distribution could be much more complicated. Educational loans come into play in several ways upon divorce depending on when the loan was taken out and whether payments were made during marriage. Here are some scenarios you could face:
- If your student-spouse took out an educational loan during your marriage and your combined earnings were used to repay that loan, you might be a candidate for reimbursement. In this situation, you could potentially receive half of whatever was paid for the student-spouse’s educational costs (e.g., tuition, books, transportation, supplies).
- On the other hand, if your student-spouse took out an educational loan during your marriage and your combined earnings were used to fully repay that loan, you may not be able to recover all of those expenses. If the student-spouse can show that the community (you, your spouse, and the property acquired by you and your spouse during marriage) substantially benefitted from the educational loan, the community may not receive a reimbursement .
- For example, if you put your husband through medical school but have been enjoying a high standard of living due to his increased earning capacity, you may be out of luck as the non-student spouse. Nevertheless, every situation is unique, and depending on the specific circumstances of your case, reimbursement could still be on the table and it is worthwhile to investigate fully.
- If the student-spouse took out the loan before the marriage, the debt incurred is probably the student-spouse’s separate property obligation, meaning that you will not be liable for repayment of that loan.**
- If both spouses went to school during marriage, there could be a reduced right to reimbursement or offset of the resulting debt.
- Additionally, the likelihood of reimbursement could be reduced for a non-student spouse if the education or training funded by that spouse enables the student-spouse to engage in gainful employment that substantially reduces the student-spouses need for financial support.
- In the long run, keeping spousal support payments in mind, eating the educational debt could be best alternative when compared with financially supporting your ex for many years to come (or indefinitely).
There are several different ways the educational-loan story can pan out. Similar to other areas of family law, the outcome really depends on the facts of that case.
Needless to say, educational debt problems can be complicated under California law, and you may need legal assistance to ensure that debt distribution is fair at divorce. Contact the certified Family Law Specialists (as certified by The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization) at Lonich Patton Ehrlich Policastri to learn more about handling educational debt at divorce. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law matters.
Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results. While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice. Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.
*Quoting California Family Code §2641.
**See California Family Code §2627.