To Be Married or Not to Be Married?

Last month’s article showed that today’s unmarried couples have more legal rights than they did a half-century ago. This raises the big question: Why get married?

During the marriage

There are several financial benefits for married couples. Probably the most talked about is the ability to be on the other spouse’s health insurance plan. Another is reducing the couple’s overall tax burden by filing a joint tax return. Still a less well-known benefit involves social security payments: If a person becomes disabled and is married, the amount of social security disability payments received is significantly boosted.

If a spouse dies

When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse is heavily protected under the law. Regardless of whether the deceased spouse had a will, the law ensures that the surviving spouse receives at least some of their late spouse’s estate (how much depends on factors such as other heirs). If the couple was wealthy and the estate faces a big tax bill, the surviving spouse can receive tax exemptions that exist only for married people. If the married couple owned a home, the surviving spouse becomes the sole owner of the home. A spouse also has authority to make decisions regarding burial or cremation. Finally, the surviving spouse can receive social security “survivor” benefits.

In divorce. . .

In a divorce case, the presumption under Oregon law is that each spouse contributed equally to the marriage. This can be proven otherwise, but this offers built-in protection to a spouse that wasn’t the breadwinner. The spouse needing financial support can get spousal support and can also receive a part of the ex’s retirement account without tax consequences. A divorced spouse may also be eligible to receive a portion of the former spouse’s social security benefits.

What’s an unmarried couple to do?

Unmarried couples lose out big time on financial benefits during the partnership, and if the relationship breaks down and the partnership ends or if one partner dies, the other partner can be left in a real lurch, financially and otherwise. The law simply does not protect unmarried partners. Still, even the most committed couple may still choose not to get married. For these couples, it is critical that they take proactive steps to protect themselves.

First and foremost, these couples should do estate planning. While Oregon law doesn’t inherently protect surviving unmarried partners, by having a will, power of attorney and other vital documents, they can ensure their partner receives a share of their estate and can make critical financial, medical and end-of-life decisions on their behalf. Joint ownership of property with rights of survivorship is also a method of planning that protects an unmarried partner upon the death of the other.  Non-married couples may also want to consider doing a partner agreement. Not very romantic, but an agreement laying out how they will own assets and divide them in the event of a breakup can assist these couples and the court, if needed, in dividing property.

Robert (Bob) Good has practiced law in Jackson County for over twenty years, specializing in family law, estate planning and business law. Contact him at his Ashland office at (541) 482-3763.