Yes, marriage is about love and romance. But when you boil it down, the difference between dating and being married is a legal one, and the change starts as soon as you (and all the necessary witnesses) sign your marriage license. So what else changes along with your legal relationship status? We spoke with Kara Bellew, a partner of Rower LLC who has been practicing matrimonial and family law since 2005, about the legal benefits that come along with tying the knot.
Tax season may be everyone’s least favorite time of year, but there are a few benefits for married couples that might make mid-April a little less daunting. “When you shift from being a single taxpayer to filing as a married couple, your deductions change,” says Bellew. “Married couples filing separately had a standard deduction of $6,350 for 2017 [which applies to those taxes that need to be filed in April of 2018], while married couples filing jointly had a standard deduction of $12,700.”
Marrying a partner with a different income than your own can also impact your tax bracket (i.e. the highest rate of tax on your income). “If you have a significantly higher income than your partner, you were most likely in different tax brackets before getting married,” says Bellew. “If you decide to file jointly after your marriage, your tax rate will be calculated on your combined income, with each bracket defined by different thresholds than apply to singles. Your combined income could actually put you into a lower tax bracket, decreasing the total amount of taxes you pay as a couple.”
You’re probably not thinking about it now, but Social Security retirement benefits can have a huge impact on you and your partner later in life. If your partner is older than you, when they reach the age of retirement and begin to receive Social Security payments, you may qualify to receive a monthly payment on their record—up to one half of their full benefit amount each month.
“In New York State, a spouse is automatically entitled to one third of the estate,” says Bellew, which means if your partner passes away, you are entitled by law to one third of their estate, which cannot be taken away by any sort of legal document. “You can draft a will and gift items or money to whomever you want, but the entitlement of the surviving spouse is built-in. If you are not legally married and there is no will, you have no legal claim to your partner’s estate,” Bellew explains. Laws about inheritance vary from state to state, but in many instances there is some entitlement that is guaranteed by public policy. And of course, your will can allocate larger portions of your estate or specific items to your spouse, as you see fit.
Being legally married comes along with certain benefits that apply to things like your spouse’s healthcare or the legitimacy of your children. “You automatically have hospital visitation rights, and if your spouse has not identified a medical proxy in the event of an emergency, you would have the ability to serve as proxy,” says Bellew. As it relates to children, rules vary state-by-state. “In New York, if you are unmarried but have a child together, and you haven’t established paternity, in the event that a parent dies there is no presumption that the other parent is legally the parent of the child,” says Bellew—which would prevent the surviving parent from seeking child support from the deceased parent’s estate. “But if you are married, there is a presumption of legitimacy that doesn’t require the establishment of paternity in this case.”
Health insurance benefits are one of the biggest reasons to legally marry your partner. “In fact,” says Bellew, “the major reason couples don’t want to get divorced—even if their relationship is failing—is to be able to keep that benefit.” Essentially, even if you want to provide health insurance to your partner, if you do not have a legal relationship, you cannot extend your benefits to them. And it’s more than just healthcare. “Benefits from the Family Medical Leave Act also apply to your spouse, giving you a certain amount of leave if your spouse or a child is sick,” Bellew explains. While the process of researching and changing your health insurance may be daunting, it’s a little due diligence that can go a long way. “Consider what your insurance costs are each month, how much it would cost to go on your spouse’s insurance, and whether the benefits are of equal value,” says Bellew. “Not only could you have access to better benefits, but you could very well save money along the way.”
So as you enter into one of the most important contracts you’ll sign, be sure to do your research and have frank, open conversations with your partner. “It’s best for everyone to not only have their eyes open to what is available to them, but to understand how to best protect themselves individually and as a couple. Whether it’s discussing a prenuptial agreement with a lawyer or talking to an accountant about the most beneficial way to file your taxes, it’s important to come into your marriage with an understanding of your partnership. You should both be active and willing participants, and should take it upon yourselves to seek knowledge and information about the options that are available to you.”