Court-administered fines for minor crimes often total only $100 to $500, but some criminal sentences include hefty fines that can total $10,000 or more. If these fines are not paid, a court might explore options that include asking a spouse to pay the fines. A spouse needs to know what the law requires in terms of payment of fines incurred by the other partner in a marriage. With a little knowledge, a spouse can avoid a lot of emotional and potential financial hardship.
In some states, laws make a spouse liable for some debts of a partner. These states operate by the community property rules. The community property rule says a debt incurred by one spouse automatically becomes the debt of the other spouse. Arizona, California, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin are community property states. In common law property states, debts incurred by one spouse remain separate from the debts of the other spouse. The exact laws vary from state to state. Check in the state where the fine is owed to determine whether this applies. A financial attorney can assist you in determining whether you are subject to any state laws on liability for a spouse’s debt from unpaid court fines.
Fines Assessed Before Marriage
In all states, most debts incurred before marriage do not become the liability of a new spouse when the debtor marries. Debts incurred before marriage remain debts owed only by that person. If a spouse commits a crime and then marries before a court assesses fines, the spouse in a community property state becomes liable for that debt. Thus, it is advisable for a person whose spouse faces a criminal prosecution to wait until sentencing is complete before marrying.
In community property states, spouses can avoid liability for court fines a spouse brings into a marriage by signing a prenuptial or post-nuptial agreement. These written legal agreements separate each spouse's property, money and debts prior to marriage. The agreements, though, do not affect any court fines incurred after the marriage.
Potential Lawsuit Costs
A court might not be aware of a prenuptial or post-nuptial agreement and might not know that a spouse’s court fines were assessed before a marriage. Thus, it is possible for a court to file suit against a spouse even if not liable for fines assessed on the other. This means that you might expend significant money defending a suit even if you are not liable for a spouse’s fines. Each individual must evaluate whether paying the fine is financially advantageous. This depends largely on the total of the fines in comparison of the expected cost of defending a lawsuit. Another concern for a spouse involves shared property. A court might seek to acquire shared property as payment for fines, and the court might do so even if you are not liable for the fines. This means the court could establish a lien on a home that you own with your spouse.