Americans are carrying more student loan debt that ever, and many are still paying it off well in to middle age and beyond. Therefore, whether a couple ties the knot in their 20s or 50s, one or both partners could be bringing a significant amount of student loan debt into the marriage.

Student loans are considered individual debt for the purposes of divorce -- but only if they haven't been consolidated with the other spouse's debt. Many couples find that they can get a better interest rate if they consolidate their student loans. That practice was stopped by Congress in 2006 for federal loan programs. However, there are still private lenders that do it.

What Happens to Consolidated Debt in Divorce?

While consolidation can be financially beneficial during the marriage, it can create a mess if a couple divorces. Consolidated loan contracts, both under the old federal consolidation program and through private lenders, specify that both spouses are responsible for the debt even after divorce. Further, divorce courts don't have the authority to divide these loans.

Therefore, if your ex-spouse won't or can't make his or her fair share of the payments, you could with them. The same is true if your ex-spouse passes away. If you're not able to make the payments, your credit score could take a serious hit. So, of course, could your finances.

If your ex has the means to pay his or her portion but refuses, you can go to court to try to force repayment of what you've paid towards his or her share. You may be able to sue for damages if the non-payment harmed your credit record. However, if your former spouse genuinely doesn't have the money to make the payments, there's little you can do.

These are all things to carefully consider before you choose what may be a tempting loan consolidation rate. If the marriage ends, you could end up paying far more than you'd save with a consolidated loan.

Premarital Financial Planning Is Important

This is just one more reason why it's essential for you and your partner to discuss your individual financial situations before you marry and to know how responsible your soon-to-be spouse is about money. It's not romantic, to be sure, but looking at each other's credit records is a good idea.

Even if you weren't considering a prenuptial agreement, you may determine that it's in one or both of your best interests to spell out financial arrangements, including debt division, in a prenup so that you minimize unwelcome financial fallout in the event of a divorce.