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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 5:04 pm | Overcast 60º


Karen Telleen-Lawton: Gay Marriage and Finances

Dear Karen: I’m pretty satisfied with our current living arrangement, but ever since the Supreme Court struck down the guts of the Defense of Marriage Act, my partner has been wanting us to get married. It’s not that I don’t plan for us to stay together, but neither my parents nor my straight friends seem to be able to figure out how to make marriage work. Why should we bother?

— Disillusioned

Dear Dis: You’re right that marriage doesn’t have a good track record these days. The freedom that many feel now to enter marriage (or not) and to raise children (or not) leads us to pose questions such as yours: Why get married?

Since you are posing it to a financial advisor, I will defer the important religious and spiritual implications to dive into economic reasons for and against a legally sanctioned marriage.

Marriage is for couples who want to be each other’s family, which is a high standard. When that commitment is made, society upholds it with legal benefits and responsibilities. The Human Rights Campaign catalogs over 1,138 benefits, rights and protections that accrue to married couples. These include Social Security, tax treatments, family and medical leave, immigration, employee benefits and COBRA insurance.

The benefits accrue largely because a spouse leapfrogs over the rest of the family to become your next of kin. Retirement plans such as 401(k) or similar ones require that the spouse be the beneficiary unless he or she waives that right. Likewise, spousal and survivor Social Security benefits accrue to legally married partners. Depending on the state and any legal contracts in play, there are potential implications such as emergency hospital visits or expressing the wishes of a spouse who is incapacitated.

The responsibilities parallel these benefits. You are financially responsible for each other. Your married partner’s individual debt may not legally be yours, but jointly owned assets are at risk with a spouse’s debt. When you combine lives, your finances intertwine in ways that are difficult to predict, including your personal credit rating.

Another disadvantage of marriage is that you may pay more income taxes if you become subject to what some call the “marriage penalty.” This happens when your joint income lands you in a higher tax bracket than either of you had singly.

Finally, with marriage comes the potential for divorce. Even with no-fault laws, divorce is still difficult, costly and time consuming by design. Given these complexities, I don’t recommend a marriage purely for financial reasons.

The overarching question for you is whether you want to commit your life to your partner. If so, I suggest an old-fashioned engagement period, whose purpose is to “try on” the idea and check out the implications. This includes everything from meeting (or getting to know better) each other’s families to exploring your finances. Discussing your future goals and dreams — children, travel, retirement dreams and so forth — may be an enjoyable way to begin. Then you can segue to the present, comparing budgets, attitudes toward debt and credit scores.

If all of this makes you want to run the other way, then it may be time to have a serious discussion about your future as a couple.

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor (www.DecisivePath.com) and a freelance writer (www.CanyonVoices.com). Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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