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When spouses separate, the world does not stop moving forward, despite the emotional turmoil. Everyday expenses still pile up. A joint debt, or obligation, remains a joint debt, for which the creditor can pursue either of you individually or jointly. The same way that a creditor can go after a co-signor of a loan, joint debts are payable and enforceable against both spouses even after the marriage ends, unless the debts are settled as part of the divorce or renegotiated with the creditor.
All too often, in the time between separating and divorcing, spouses will ruin each other's credit because joint debts fall by the wayside. When parties cannot agree on how to divide their property and assets, a court will need to get involved, which can make the process take significantly longer. When a home mortgage or debts relating to children are involved, the shared finances and joint obligations become something that the separated parties need to discuss as early as possible.
Protecting Debt Secured Assets
If your soon-to-be former spouse and yourself have a mortgage, car note, or other significant assets that have debt tied to them, setting aside the emotions and having a serious business discussion is a good idea. Discussing who is going to pay these debts, or how much each of you will or can contribute is essential to ensure that the assets do not get foreclosed upon and taken by the lender.
You should try to handle this as a business decision, meaning that you should look at the situation from an economic standpoint. If you lose the house to foreclosure, or a car is repossessed:
The Family Home
If your spouse will be living in the family home, with the children, while you have to find a place for yourself, until custody and the home issue are finally divided properly by agreement or the court, it may feel like an unfair burden to pay even part of the mortgage. However, any money you pay towards the mortgage is equity that you are paying into an asset of which you presumptively own at least 50% (in a community property state like California, unless the home was initially separate property). Knowing who is going to pay the mortgage during the period of separation will provide peace of mind.
While the whole situation may be emotionally charged, things can go from bad to worse if the finances are not discussed and a plan made regarding how to manage the finances. While getting a signed agreement on how the finances will be handled until the divorce can be finalized is best, minimally making sure the agreement is in writing (at least in an email with a response from your spouse confirming receipt) will help avoid confusion later on if finalizing the divorce takes more time than expected.