For more and more couples, student loan debt is becoming the most significant financial aspect of their lives. With the skyrocketing cost of education, it is increasingly common for couples to divorce when one or both of the spouses has tens of thousands or even six figures in student loan debt. Thus, the question of how responsibility for a student loan debt is divided in a divorce may be the most significant financial issue that both parties face.
Pennsylvania Divides Marital Debt Through Equitable Distribution
Aside from potential alimony and custody/visitation concerns, the other central issue to be worked out in any divorce is property distribution. As the name suggests, this is the question of dividing up a divorcing couple’s property and deciding who gets what. The basic first step in this approach is to put together all of the marital property of the couple (meaning the property that was earned or acquired during the time of the marriage, as opposed to separate property owned by the respective spouses prior to the marriage).
Once the court determines what is the marital property, it will endeavor to divide that property between the spouses through a process called equitable distribution. Under the principle of equitable distribution, the court will attempt to divide the property in a manner that is fair in light of all circumstances, which does not necessarily mean that the property will be distributed 50/50.
Pennsylvania courts take the same approach to dividing debts. If a debt was acquired by one spouse during the time of the marriage, it will be considered marital debt, and will this be subject to the concept of equitable distribution between the spouses. For example, if a couple had a joint credit card account that they both used for groceries and other shared costs, it is likely a judge would split the responsibility to pay that debt between them both.
PA Equitable Distribution and Student Loan Debt
The key point to understand with equitable distribution, whether we are talking about division of assets or debts, is that Pennsylvania judges have wide discretion to look at all the circumstances and decide what a fair outcome would be. With debts, judges will generally look at who benefitted from the goods or services purchased with the debt in determining who should be responsible for paying it after the divorce.
Applying this to student loans, Pennsylvania courts have shown a willingness to assign the debts exclusively to the person who received the education – even if that debt was undertaken during the time of the marriage – if it can be shown that that spouse was “the exclusive beneficiary of the education.”
That said, this should not be taken to mean that the person who takes out a student loan during marriage will always be exclusively responsible for it following a divorce. Again, judges have wide discretion in determining these issues, and it may be possible to show that both spouses indeed benefitted from the education. Furthermore, there are typically a number of factors and issues a court will consider in dividing property and assets (or in approving a settlement reached by the spouses voluntarily), and so the issue of student loans may be significantly impacted by other aspects of the divorce.
Speak to an experienced PA family law attorney about student loan debt in your divorce proceedings.
Get Help With Your PA Family Law Matter Today
At The Martin Law Firm, P.C., our family law team works with men and women across Southeastern Pennsylvania in family law matters – including property distribution, alimony, child custody, and visitation – and we are committed to serving your needs in a compassionate and efficient manner. Call us today for a no-hassle consultation regarding any questions you have about divorce in Pennsylvania.