Legalese — Why Get Married?

Marriage.  Sometimes it can seem like an outdated concept.  “It’s just a piece of paper,” I hear people say.  “I don’t need the state or the church telling me we’re committed to each other.”

It used to be a societal standard – first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes parents with a baby carriage.  Anything else was downright scandalous.  Nowadays, anything goes, and in many ways that’s a good thing.  There are many different ways to define a family, and shotgun weddings aren’t always the best way to start a life.

That said, marriage does have a lot of advantages from a legal standpoint, and since this is a legal column, I would like to point them out here.  I’d also like to make a disclaimer that I am not taking a moral or social stance: my purpose here is only to point out the legal advantages of marriage.  Take the rest up with your family, friends, spiritual advisor, and your own personal internal moral compass.

There are tax benefits to being married.  Being married and filing jointly is generally the most financially advantageous way to go.  Also, since social security is related to taxes, there are social security advantages to being married.  If you have been married for ten years, then you ‘vest’ in your spouse’s social security benefits.  This means that even if you don’t work, or you work a low-income job and your spouse makes a lot of money, you will qualify for the same amount of social security benefit as your spouse.  (I’m over-simplifying, but just barely.)  This is true even if you later get divorced or your spouse dies.

If you have children together and you are the father, there are a lot of rights that automatically vest once you get married.  Until and unless you get married, the only right you automatically have is the right to pay child support.  Yes, this is true even if you signed the birth certificate.

Inheritance is a big one.  It is difficult for a spouse to completely write his or her spouse out of the will, even if they don’t talk anymore.  If you want a big money good example of this, see the estate of the band The Cars’ front man Ric Ocasek.  His wife, supermodel Paulina Porizkova, had been separated from him for a long time, but they hadn’t divorced.  Because of that, she is entitled to a third of his estate, and she wants it.  (I would, too – he’s reportedly worth over 5 million.)

Marriage also gives you the right to loss of consortium claims.  If your honeyboo gets hurt in an automobile accident and can’t help around the house or provide ‘comfort’, you can file a loss of consortium claim if you are the spouse, but not if you are just the girlfriend or boyfriend.  If honeyboo gets killed, you can only file the wrongful death claim if you are the spouse.

There are a lot of practical things, too, like property rights.  Let’s say you live in a house together, but you aren’t married.  You buy a lot of stuff, like tv’s and couches and dvd’s and microwaves and pots and pans and towels.  The house is in his name, but you pay the homeowners insurance and the electric bill because that seems fair.   Then you break up.  There isn’t a really good legal mechanism for splitting all of that up, especially if you’ve been together for a while.  And worse – if he dies suddenly and/or without a will his family can render you homeless and claim that your tv’s and couches and pots and pans are all part of his estate in an instant.

“Oh, but they wouldn’t do that,” you say.

“Mmmmmhmmmm,” I say.  I do what I do for a living.  I see it happen all the time.

I’m always stunned by people who buy houses together or who have children together but who say that they aren’t ready for the commitment of marriage.  They don’t seem to recognize that a mortgage is a 30-year commitment and a child is a lifetime commitment.  A marriage is only a commitment until a judge renders you divorced.  At least with marriage and divorce there are ground rules and laws you have to follow – with nebulous ‘relationships’ there aren’t.

Just my two cents.  Take it or leave it.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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