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Pay Attention If Your Spouse Gets Sued

4/20/16

Judge Gerald A. Williams
North Valley Justice of the Peace

Most people know that Arizona is a community property state. However, perhaps few realize that their salary can be garnished for what they thought was their spouse’s debt.

With very few exceptions, community property means that all property acquired during a marriage belongs to both the husband and to the wife equally. Community debt works basically the same way.

By way of example, say that your husband does not pay his credit card bill to the point that he is considered to be in default. The credit card company files a lawsuit against him; but they don’t know your name because the card is only in his name. As a result, the case is called Discover Card v. Tim Johnson and Jane Doe.   

Should you be worried even if your name is not on the original lawsuit? Absolutely. There are a couple different ways to add your name to the lawsuit. Depending on who opens the mail or the front door, there is a chance your name will be added to your husband’s credit card case without you knowing about it. However, that is not as unfair as it might initially sound.

Arizona requires a judgment against both spouses before any community property (e.g. a joint bank account) can be used to pay a judgment. If you are injured in a car wreck, and you cannot determine whether the driver who hit you was married because he is ignoring the lawsuit, you may end up with a default judgment against only him. If you later discover that he has been married for 10 years, it may be difficult to ever collect on that judgment. 

Identifying possible spouses perhaps became more difficult last year. After the Supreme Court redefined marriage to include same-sex couples, a plaintiff’s search for a defendant’s potential spouse can no longer be restricted to searches based on gender. In addition, Arizona does not maintain a centralized data bank of marriage and divorce records. Even if it did, many married couples living in Arizona were married in another state. 

The bottom line is that you can, and you likely will, be sucked into any lawsuit that names your spouse. Don’t ignore it just because your name is not on the first set of paperwork. If you are not paying attention, you may miss your opportunity to challenge the allegations. And yes, if you are named in a lawsuit, you really should tell your spouse.   

Judge Williams is the Justice of the Peace for the North Valley Justice Court. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus.