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To Marry or Not?

By: Jim Nelson, estate planning attorney

The number of unmarried partners living together in the United States is at least 17 million, which translates to 34 million individuals or approximately 7% of the total adult population.  The number continues to grow. Estimates from the Current Population Survey’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement show unmarried parties are now older, more racially diverse, more educated and more likely to earn higher wages. There’s little doubt that the arrangement is socially acceptable, however, unmarried partners face a number of legal differences from their married counterparts.

End of life or estate planning is absolutely essential for unmarried partners. For example, if you’re married and don’t have will or trust and your spouse dies, the law provides that the surviving spouse will wind up with all or most of the decedent’s estate.  If you’re not married and have no estate plan, it will be a mess. The law will direct that your estate will pass to your children, if any, then your parents or your siblings. Your surviving partner will receive nothing unless you have made appropriate arrangements prior to your death. Our planning attorneys are available to meet with you and your partner to assure that you achieve your desired goals with the passage of your assets upon your death. You’ll also learn about how to direct who should make medical decisions if you’re unable to do so yourself and who will be in charge of funeral and burial arrangements.

What about marriage?  The statistics show that more of us are choosing to live together without the formality of marriage.  While many issues can be solved with careful legal planning, there remain some legal benefits that are available only to married couples.  Here are a few:

Joint Tax Return – Only a married couple can file a federal income tax return as a couple.

Health Insurance – If your employer happens to offer health insurance for your partner, the amount contributed by your employer toward the premium is taxable income to you.  It would be tax free coverage for a spouse.

Social Security – For married couples, when the first spouse dies, the surviving spouse is entitled to receive the decedent’s monthly Social Security benefit if it’s more than the surviving spouse receives.

Retirement Assets (401(k), IRA, etc.) –A surviving spouse has a broader and more beneficial set of options available including treating all or a portion of their deceased spouse’s IRA as their own.

Family Home – If you’re unmarried, the transfer of the home to your partner at the time of your death will uncap the property and permit the assessor to increase the assessed valuation to reflect the current market value of the home. This outcome can be avoided by proper planning if the owner is willing to make the property jointly owned while both partners are living

Liability Protection – A personal residence owned and occupied by a married couple can’t be attached by a creditor of one of the parties.

Many of these marriage benefits are complicated, but our estate planning attorneys in Ann Arbor can help you understand the details as part of the overall estate planning process.  They will not help you to decide whether or not to marry!

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