"Does marrying someone with bad credit affect my credit score?"

The short answer to that question is: No, it won't. Your credit record will remain your credit record, and your new spouse's credit record will remain theirs. Same for your credit scores.

But the longer answer is more complicated because your spouse's credit can affect your finances in a variety of other ways.

Here are some of the basics you and your spouse both need to know.

Key Takeaways

  • Marrying a person with a bad credit history won't affect your own credit record.
  • You and your spouse will continue to have separate credit reports after you marry.
  • However, any debts you take on jointly will be reported on both your and your spouse's credit reports.

How Credit Scores Work

Your credit score is an assessment of your creditworthiness, based on the items in your credit report at one or more of the three major national credit bureaus. Your credit report includes your borrowing history and your track record for repaying your debts, such as monthly credit card bills, on time.

Having a good credit score is important not only when you want to borrow money to buy a car or a home but even when you aren't borrowing. An insurance company, for example, might look at your credit score in setting your rates, a landlord might look at it in deciding whether to rent you an apartment, and a prospective employer might check it before offering you a job. In other words, it is used to assess how reliable—or risky—you are likely to be in any number of situations.

You may not have any credit history before you get your first credit card, but after that it will build up month after month. By the time you get married you may have accumulated a substantial record.

What Happens to Your Credit When You Get Married?

As a married couple, you and your spouse will continue to have two separate credit histories, tied to your respective Social Security numbers. Marriage doesn't change that—there is no "couple's credit report"; in fact, the credit bureaus don't even record marital status. If one (or both) of you changes your name—one of you takes on your spouse's surname or you hyphenate your names, for example—that won't affect your credit either and you don't have to notify the credit bureaus of the name change.

However, marriage can change your credit going forward if you apply for loans jointly, open joint accounts, or take on any other debt together. That's why, before you tie the knot and periodically afterwards, you should go over your financial records together, including salaries, savings, investments, and debt, and review your credit reports. You need to have a clear sense of how each of you handles money as you make your marriage journey together.

Negative information in a credit report becomes less important over time and will eventually disappear altogether.

Taking Out a Joint Loan

If you decide to take out a loan jointly with your spouse—say, for a house or a car—your lender is likely to check both of your credit histories in deciding whether to make the loan. If your spouse has a lousy credit record—and you have enough income to handle the loan payments by yourself—you might consider taking out the loan only in your name. If you don't, you probably won't be able to borrow as much, and you'll be borrowing at higher interest rates than if you applied with just your own good credit. In this instance, two scores are not better than one: The lower score will drag you both down.

If you do succeed in getting a joint loan, your lender is required by law to report the loan and your payment history in both of your names. So keep in mind, for example, that if you have a joint car loan and you miss any payments, those will show up on your credit history as well as that of your spouse.

How to Help a Spouse With Bad Credit

If your spouse has a bad credit history, you can help them create a more positive one and improve their credit score. (If you're worried, rest assured that any liens, outstanding debts, bankruptcies, and the like won't wind up on your credit history. But you may want to keep your accounts separate—no joint accounts, joint credit cards, consolidated student loans, etc.—until your spouse's credit improves.)

Here are steps you can take together:

  1. Get a handle on the problem. First, your spouse should get a free copy of their credit report so you can review it together and find out where they stand (while you're at it, it would be smart to get yours too). Discuss what led to the problem—a layoff, overspending, or not planning for emergencies, for example. It's important to be open and nonjudgmental.
  2. Focus on repairing the damage. Decide on a plan that will address the problems. Make a list of collection accounts and amounts and pay them off, one at a time, if necessary. Are late payments dragging down their credit scores? Make sure they're paid on time going forward. And reduce credit card balances to under 30% of the credit line to lower credit utilization (one of the components of the credit score). Additionally, your spouse might want to consider working with one of the best credit repair companies to remove any particularly stubborn negative marks.
  3. Track your progress. Obtain a credit report every few months to review the progress you've made together and tweak your plan, as needed.

Negative information in a credit report won't haunt your spouse forever. By law, the credit bureaus are required to remove it after a certain period of time. For late payments, that's 7 years; for bankruptcies, either 7 or 10 years, depending on the type of bankruptcy. What's more, as the company behind the widely used FICO credit scoring system points out, the older the negative information is, the less of an impact it will have on a credit score. And if the two of you pay your bills on time going forward, it won't be many years before your spouse also achieves a good credit history.