What are the actual legal benefits of getting married?
July 20, 2015 8:16 AM   Subscribe

Me and my partner are both of the same gender (male, if you really want to know), and we've been together on and off since late 2002. So that's...12 3/4 years? Something like that. Anyway, after everything we've been through, I'd be surprised if I ended up committing to anyone else, and although my personal marriage philosophy mirrors Joni Mitchell's ("we don't need no piece of paper from the city hall/keeping us tied and true, no!") the truth is that if I couldn't be by his side when he's on his death bed in the hospital, or if I got kicked out of my house by his brother or his nieces and nephews after he dies, I would absolutely lose my mind, and might actually end up hurting someone.

Not to mention it would be handy to be included into the health insurance he gets from his employer.

So...I feel like maybe we should get legally married, just to be practical, as opposed to just being spiritually married like we already are. But before I can commit to doing that, I'd like to know what the actual legal benefits and responsibilities actually are. Who knows, maybe our lives would actually be worse if we got married. I'm committed to him, no matter what, but maybe getting the government to acknowledge that would actually make things harder on us. For example, I have about $70,000 of student loan debt that I'm too fucking dysfunctional to figure out how to pay off. Is he going to be on the hook for that if we get married? If he passes on before me (a distinct possibility, considering he's 15 years older than me), and leave the house to me, is the government just going to take it anyway, and leave me in the same position I would have been if we kept our union non-governmental, or maybe in an even worse position?

What other legal benefits and responsibilities do married couples have, which I might need to consider? Honestly, just like the possibility of having a Black president, I thought gay marriage in my state was just a happy but unrealistic fantasy, so I never really thought about the practical consequences, yet here we are. So...what do I need to consider before I actually go through with marrying my partner?
posted by sam_harms to Law & Government (21 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The only real penalty I can think of is that if your incomes are similar, you could be hit with the marriage tax penalty.

You're probably in the clear on student loans, but it's a question for a lawyer.

is the government just going to take it anyway, and leave me in the same position I would have been if we kept our union non-governmental, or maybe in an even worse position?

I don't see why this would be the case, but I guess I could be underestimating the vindictiveness of reactionaries who could take power in the future. I mean, that was the underlying reason for many of the couples who sued for the right to marry.
posted by supercres at 8:22 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I don't have a good answer for many of your questions, but in terms of the focus on what would happen if one of you were sick or dying, I've known several long-term couples who only got married when one of them was terminally ill.

Of course, you don't always get the kind of notice you'd need to get married before someone dies, but not dealing with this right now and coming back later is an option (albeit one with some accepted risk) if you don't want to deal right away.
posted by terretu at 8:27 AM on July 20, 2015

IAAL; IANYL. I always tell people they should get married so they can sue for loss of consortium. I'm trying to be slightly facetious, but really not; the point I'm making is that, as you note, there are a whole slew of legal rights that attach to spouses but not to significant others, including but not limited to the right to sue for loss of consortium, the right to inherit, the right to certain benefits, etc.

In sum: legally, there's way more upside than downside to being married. If there are things that really worry you, like debt, you can deal with that through a pre-nuptial agreement, although it is unlikely he'd be on the hook for your student loans.
posted by holborne at 8:29 AM on July 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

People didn't fight so hard for so long for the right to get married because it was trivial or counterproductive. Here's an overview list to get you thinking, although your state will have a lot of jurisdiction-specific laws and some of the specific questions about debt and property are likely best answered by a lawyer.
posted by ftm at 8:32 AM on July 20, 2015 [8 favorites]

I work in HR so these are ones I know:
-Premiums paid to cover a spouse on insurance are non-taxable.
-Spouses can use FSA money
-Spouse is the default beneficiary for any benefits (life insurance, 401k)
-Spouse can get social security benefits

As people who just got married we are very excited about (jokingly!) spousal privilege and (not jokingly) being able to jointly adopt.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:36 AM on July 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, we're in central Ohio--Columbus, to be specific--if that matters. But...I guess because this has been legalized on the federal level, the federal laws are more relevant? I don't know...is this issue still being worked out on the state level? Would it actually be better to hold off until things settle down and everything's calmed down? There doesn't seem to be a huge back-lash against the supreme court ruling, as far as I can tell, but I'm not really paying attention to current events all that much. I mean, I'm sitting here in the midwest, listening to Joni Mitchell and thinking about my tomato plants and what God or the Goddess wants from humankind for goodness sake, so I'm not exactly tuned into the mainstream over here....
posted by sam_harms at 8:39 AM on July 20, 2015

I know there has been some resistance in Ohio, but as far as I know, the Franklin County Clerks have been doing their job-- I don't know anybody who has gotten married since the ruling (but several who now have their marriages recognized by the state, who are now very happy about that) but I do know a couple who was able to get their son's birth certificate changed very easily.
posted by damayanti at 8:46 AM on July 20, 2015

Wow, uh, hello me. We have very similar circumstances, right down to the crushing student loan debt and age gap.

We held off on getting married while buying a house because, as the linked article mentions, my credit would have impacted our (amazing) interest rate on the home loan. We're still not married because... well, I'm like you. That said, we have joint property and that alone means we will likely tie the knot--it's just far, far, far simpler than trying to tie up all the legal-financial loose ends that a marital contract does all at once with regard to shared property and the like.

We've also had two friends pass away unexpectedly in the last couple years whose partners have been systematically locked out of their lives by the family of the deceased. Really, these have been shocking, and maybe foundational, experiences for both of us. C was a chef and cut his hand at work. He went home to care for himself, instead of going to the ER, and ended up (we think) fainting at the top of the stairs in their house, injuring himself on the fall, and then bleeding out before his partner got home. C's mom swooped in and locked down their assets, very legally and with a very aggressive lawyer, within two days of C's death. C's partner lost everything. A year later, J came down with pneumonia. Very suddenly, his pneumonia became lethal. J's family, very religious southern baptists, told his partner not to come to the funeral or burial. Hundreds of J's lifelong friends intervened and undid that pronouncement, but the family nevertheless did what they could to erase his real life: never acknowledged his partner in the service, made up stories about him being really religious, deleted his Facebook memorial page, you name it. I feel like J and C should be the last people I knew whose memories (and partners) have to be weighted down with that mess.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:54 AM on July 20, 2015 [24 favorites]

I'm married (heterosexually, btw) and I have significant student loan debt (in income-based repayment and on track for PSLF), therefore my husband and I file our taxes "married but filing separately"--so the unequal student loan debt can easily be a factor in your joint finances, but it's not a serious hassle, just a petty one, as long as you are united generally in the approach to your houseold finances. For us, it's a annoying because for $Reasons he has to itemize his deductions (which I would not do) and therefore I must also itemize mine; also, I can't take the student loan interest deduction (but, frankly, I save more money in IBR) and a couple other things which make *my* taxes more complicated, but don't really affect his. Generally speaking, student loan debt incurred before marriage is not joint debt, but you can formalize some understandings about pre-marital debt and assets with a pre-nuptual agreement drafted by a competent attorney.

Marriage confers certain rights upon you. It gives you legal leverage in many contexts and social leverage in other contexts. It's okay not to want to be married but it's also okay to want the benefits marriage confers, despite thinking there's lots of nastiness wrapped up in the history of the institution.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:56 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

The documentary Bridegroom horrifyingly depicts what can happen when a gay couple don't have a civil contact; pretty much what happened to ladh's friends.
posted by brujita at 9:01 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

here in chile one issue is inheritance. legally, wills are a kind-of grey area - by law certain percentages "have" to go to "official" relations (i don't understand the details). so legal partnerships (not marriage, here) mean you can leave stuff to a partner and it cannot be (successfully) challenged n court.
posted by andrewcooke at 9:10 AM on July 20, 2015

Response by poster: Look, I know I come across as pretty facetious here, but the truth is that I'm scared to death. I'm pretty disconnected from the rest of the world, and always have been. I don't work, I spend most of my time at home, and the only person I interact with on a regular basis is my partner--who also lives in his own little world, so isn't much help in educating me about the real world. So...feel free to speak to me like child or a moron, ok? Because when it comes to legal matters, I pretty much am.
posted by sam_harms at 9:26 AM on July 20, 2015

Previous answer of mine about marriage rights.

FWIW, I think the professor in question was probably gay.
posted by Michele in California at 9:27 AM on July 20, 2015

Oh, in response to your update, I am a former homemaker. If you are de facto the homemaker here, marriage will do a lot to legitimize your role and protect you financially if you are dependent on your partner.

Feel free to memail me.
posted by Michele in California at 9:30 AM on July 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

Call your local gay community center and ask them if there is someone you can talk to about marriage rights or ask for a referral to a good family law lawyer with experience dealing with same-sex civil unions or same-sex marriages/divorces. If there's no local gay community center, call a local legal aid office with expertise in LGBT rights and ask them if there are "why get married?" resources or, again, someone you can talk to.

Although carrying a copy of your marriage license with you can't, for instance, force a horrible intractable nurse let you into a hospital room (nothing but--you know--physical force can make people do things they refuse to do), it does mean that when you call the police for help, they are more likely to help you and if you have to sue the hospital afterward, it will be the foundation for your lawsuit.

In the US, if you are financially dependent on your partner, you need a form of legal protection in the event of your partner's death or injury or desertion. This is true, regardless of your ages and regardless of whether you are both men. Marriage is a short-cut to a lot of these protections (Michele In CA's link above highlights many of these) but it's not the only way to do it. However, if you want rock-solid inheritance rights, hard-to-challenge-rights to make medical decisions for each other, and access to one another's government and employment benefits without getting married, you'll need a lawyer to help you draw up appropriate documents that accurately express these intentions.
posted by crush-onastick at 9:58 AM on July 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

There are also medical decisions. I am in a straight common law marriage, and my partner was admitted to the ICU with a life threatening condition. Not only was I allowed to visit him without restrictions, but to make medical decisions on his behalf.* The thing is, we're straight and I guess we look pretty married, because nobody ever questioned that we were. Legally, our common law marriage is official, but neither of us wears a ring and we have different last names, and we rarely call each other husband and wife because I still think it's weird.

I would love it if I thought that you'd be afforded the same benefit of the doubt in a situation like that, but I kind of doubt it. And it was reassuring to know that, if I had needed to prove our marital status, I could have done it.

We're middle aged and straight and pretty boring looking, so I don't think people even question that we are married. If we were the same sex, though, I don't think we'd be getting that benefit of the doubt so consistently, so it would be much more important to make it official. There's a lot of weird social floo-flah and stuff associated with marriage, but it is a legal status, and it's a legal status that you deserve. For medical issues, inheritance, taxes (sounds like being married might save you money in your situation), benefits, and tons of other stuff.

* A nurse did have him sign something to that effect, but he was sedated and so out of it at the time that when I mentioned it some time later, he said WHAAAA? He has no memory of that at all.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:59 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

There are 1138 benefits provided by marriage at the federal level in the USA.

Your best bet is to look at your local queer-focused paper/website, find a lawyer who's advertising, and go in for a consultation about your situation specifically and what are the pros/cons to marriage for you two.

(Also, mazel tov!)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:19 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

The fact that you don't feel like you need that piece of paper to prove your commitment is, I think, how everyone should feel before they get married. Marriage does two things for you 1. It lets everyone else know that you are both committed to each other. 2. It makes a lot of legal things easier to deal with.

As a spouse, you'd be the assumed beneficiary (especially retirement accounts 401k/IRA/Roth IRA). You can name your partner as the beneficiary on those accounts and/or have a lawyer draft a really solid will but if you forget something or something changes (like an employer) and you guys forget to make those changes, you'll still be able to deal with it, but being a legal spouse makes it a lot easier.

And I think that's just generally what marriage would do for you, just make things easier. If your partner ever has to introduce you to someone they can say, "This is Sam_harms, we are in a life-long committed relationship." or, if you were married, "This is my spouse, Sam_Harms."

They both say basically the same thing. Frankly, anyone I meet in a relationship like yours get's filed in my brain as "married" anyways so you may as well have the dumb piece of paper and get whatever benefits that come with it.

A lot of the logistical stuff gets easier too, instead of having to explain your relationship to every person to get them to listen to you, you can just say, "I'm his spouse." I'd even be willing to bet that there is an online community full of same-sex couples that follow the pattern 1. We used to have to do x, y, and z but now that we're finally legally married x, y, and z are so much easier/not a problem!"
posted by VTX at 11:59 AM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

My partner and I (late 50s/early 60s) don't plan to get married, however it's worth noting that we already have all the legal papers in place (wills; trusts; POAs; healthcare proxies, living wills, etc.) and have placed the relevant ones on file with our doctors. And meddling/disapproving families is not an issue for us.

Anecdotally, a few weeks ago I had to drive my partner to the ER after a minor accident that required a few stitches. I walked right through with him and was not challenged; indeed, I was cordially acknowledged. Just to make things clear, my partner told the attending, "In case I pass out or whatever, he has my health care power of attorney." She smilingly responded, "I figured."

Perhaps foolishly, it didn't cross our minds to grab the papers on the way out the door, because it only takes one asshole with authority to cause trouble. So that won't happen again. Still, we are both very clear about our rights and have the life experience not to take "No" for an answer from some random bully.

All that said, you sound unsure of your rights, and being married would take a whole lot of hassle and guesswork out of putting those in place in a way that isn't likely to be questioned in an emergency situation. You wouldn't need to understand the paperwork that we have.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 1:01 PM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

-Premiums paid to cover a spouse on insurance are non-taxable.

Since you asked for kiddie terms, let me do this one, with approximate numbers.

Employer-based health coverage is paid for by you, with your monthly premium (let's say $200/mo), and by your employer, who typically picks up the large majority of the tab (say $1000/mo).

Married: our premiums are $200/mo each, so it costs us $400/mo total.

Domestic partners: my premium was $200/mo.

We were splitting expenses, so he wanted to pay me back for the premium. By law, the employer's side of the payment was taxed as if it were extra income to me. That means that I paid taxes on the $1000/mo that my employer paid to cover him: let's say 20% of $1000, or an extra $200. Then, the $200 I paid on my side for his coverage was also taxed (you can pay for your own health insurance with pre-tax dollars, but to pay for a domestic partner you have to use post-tax dollars). So let's say an extra $40 for the tax on the $200 premium. His health insurance as my partner thus cost $200 premium + $200 taxes + $40 taxes: $440/mo., or $640 to cover us both.

That's a big difference!
posted by Dashy at 1:58 PM on July 20, 2015

A lawyer in your jurisdiction can provide specific advice about your legal options. The Columbus Bar Association offers a referral service:
The Columbus Bar Lawyer Referral Service has been helping people find a lawyer for over 50 years. Our experienced phone operators can help you find a central Ohio lawyer that meets your specific needs. Available M-F, 8:30am-5:00pm at 614/221.0754 or toll-free at 877/560.1014.
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posted by Little Dawn at 10:22 PM on July 20, 2015

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