Relationship breakdown and debt

Article reference: UK-IA-FAM26
Last updated: September 2022 | 4 min read

Many people have difficulty repaying debts. The most common reason is a dramatic change in circumstances: you might have lost your job and at the same time had unexpected essential expenses. For some people, a relatively small rise in interest rates can make it impossible to meet all their repayments.

Whether you are married or living together, money problems can be a big factor in the breakdown of relationships. As the old saying goes: 'When poverty knocks on the door, love flies out of the window'. Even where the relationship has broken down for many other reasons, owing money can be desperately worrying when thinking about separating: it is invariably more expensive having two households than one.

What you can do

The first thing to do is to draw up a budget - list all your income, your outgoings (including repayments), your (major) possessions and all your debts. What is the shortfall in your income? Is there anything you could sell to pay off a debt or part of a debt and so reducing your repayments? Are you able to cut costs anywhere?

If you cannot 'balance your books' in this way, there is a lot of help available for free. Your local citizen's advice bureau will be able to give you advice on all aspects of debt and suggest other agencies that might be able to help.

If you cannot pay your mortgage or rent, it's vitally important that you tell your mortgage lender or landlord as soon as possible, explaining why and what you are trying to do about it (even if, at this stage, it's only getting advice). Otherwise they might start legal proceedings against you and you could lose your home.

Are you responsible for your partner's debts?

You cannot be held responsible for the debts of anyone else, even if you are married or living together. You are, however, jointly responsible for any joint debts. Examples of these include:

  • joint mortgages
  • joint bank accounts
  • joint loans
  • joint credit or store cards

A joint debt will be in both of your names and you will both have signed some form of agreement.

Many credit and store cards offer a second card - this does not make the account a joint one. The main card holder is the only one legally responsible for the debt - even if his or her partner is the only person ever using the account.

If you are divorcing, it is possible that most or even all of your debts are regarded as 'family debts'. Our article on maintenance after divorce explains how a court might see these sorts of debts.

How to stop your partner creating more debt

You may have realised that you will have to take steps to reduce spending but your partner may disagree. In some cases, excessive spending can be a kind of revenge for the breakdown of the relationship or an attempt to feel better.

If you have joint accounts, you can ask your bank to freeze the account. This means that neither of you can use this account in future. A joint credit card can be cancelled, although you are still responsible for the repayments of the amount owing, of course.

Second cards on accounts in your name can also be cancelled. That way you can continue to use your card, but not have your partner use his or her's.

You need to make sure, of course, that the family has enough money to live on and pay essential expenses. Making a budget can help you to work out how much that is and you can then both decide who is responsible for how much of it.

Opening two separate bank accounts can be a good idea - if you are splitting up, this will happen sooner or later anyway.

If you are not the main earner in the family and your partner is creating more debt, squandering family assets, or is refusing to support the family financially, you might need to make an application to the court.

When the times comes to part company, a good separation agreement should cover your joint financial affairs and other matters.

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