Divorce and debt are hard enough to deal with separately, and when they come together, it can be like navigating a minefield.

The most important thing you can do about this is to protect yourself in every way you can. And the first step toward that is knowing exactly what you’re up against when it comes to debt and your divorce.

Specific rules about divorce and debt may vary by state, especially between community property and common law states, so ask your lawyer about which debts you could be responsible for.
    1. You’re responsible for all joint debts taken on while you were married – no matter what your divorce agreement says. Even if your agreement clearly states that your ex will pay specific debts, you’ll probably be on the hook if he doesn’t. After all, creditors don’t care that you’re divorced. They just want to get paid.
    2. Where you live matters when it comes to individual debts (like student loans, for example) incurred during the marriage. In community property states, you’re responsible for every debt, whether or not you knew about it – unless the creditor didn’t know you were married. In common law (a.k.a. noncommunity property) states, you’re not responsible for your ex’s individual debts unless they’re for things that clearly benefited the family.
    3. Once your divorce is finalized, you won’t be responsible for the debts of your ex unless he’s used an active joint account. That means if there’s a joint credit card that didn’t get canceled and your ex uses it to pay for a Hawaiian vacation, you could get stuck paying.
    4. The rules about debt run up while you’re separated are murky at best. If the debt is linked to “family necessities,” like a pediatrician visit or back-to-school clothes, it could be considered joint debt. In other cases, post-separation debts stick to whoever incurred them – but that may not protect you if your ex defaults. Again, creditors only care about getting paid, and they can come after you if your ex doesn’t pay.
    5. Unless you co-signed for him, you won’t be responsible for debts your ex ran up before you were married.
    6. If your ex doesn’t pay bills or debts that you’re linked to, your credit score can take a hit. There are a lot of steps you can take to protect your credit, and the sooner you start taking them, the easier it will be.
    7. You may be able to get reimbursed by your ex for any debt payments you picked up…but you’ll probably have to take him to court. And you can only do that if your divorce agreement contains an indemnity clause (also called a “hold harmless” agreement). When they’re worded right, these clauses let you take your ex to court to get back money you had to pay to cover his debt defaults. Talk with your lawyer about adding this language to your agreement.

Now you know how debt can affect you after your divorce. That can be a big help during negotiations, and go a long way toward protecting your credit and your future finances.