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Marriage: What is it good for?

Queer couple laying in a field

I like being married now, but I didn’t always think that it would be for me. I came of age during the push for legalization of gay marriage when all other rights were being sidelined for an arguably assimilationist goal. So, it was easy to think that gay marriage was not for queer people.

In his 2015 essay A Modest Proposal, David Sedaris posits that,

“The battle for gay marriage was, in essence, the fight to be as square as straight people, to say things like “My husband tells me that the new Spicy Chipotle Burger they’ve got at Bennigan’s is awesome,” and “Here it is, Valentine’s Day less than a week behind us, and already my wife is flying our Easter flag!””

So maybe marriage makes us basic. But does it make us wealthy? I’m not so sure.

As Sedaris realizes later in his essay, he and Hugh have a huge upside if they marry—but only because they are multi-millionaires who could benefit from the unlimited ability to leave assets to their spouse tax-free.

How much of a privilege is it anyways? To be honest, the financial upside is a little spotty. If you are in a couple and ambivalent about marriage, blink and you might miss the benefits.

But there are a few benefits of marriage worth mentioning. Let’s explore it together.

Reduced Taxes for Different Incomes

The biggest misconception I see is that there is a tax deduction for being married. In her book The Whiteness of Wealth: How the Tax System Impoverishes Black Americans—and How We Can Fix It, Dorothy Brown points out that the for those with student loans or who claim the earned income tax credit, being married can actually increase a family’s tax burden.

For most tax calculations, married couples’ tax brackets simply double by nature of there being two people. For example, a single person making $80K of taxable income will be in the 22% tax, as will a married couple making $160K.

The benefit comes in when there is a sharp income differential. For instance, if the single person making $80K marries someone who has no income, they fall down to the 12% bracket.

Social Security Benefits

If you pull your social security statement from, you’ll see a record of all your earnings, plus a breakdown of your monthly benefit amount in retirement.

You pay in every paycheck and then one day you get a nice pension for the rest of your life. Mine is $3,428 per month at age 67, which is the typical start date for social security income. If Katie didn’t work or had a low income, she could claim 50% of this when she reaches her retirement age as well. If we were an unmarried couple, she could not get anything from my benefits.

A 2021 case won by Lambda Legal helped couples who would have been married if not for the law prohibiting gay married were able to win social security income. The benefit of half of my social security for 30 years would be $617,040—which is kind of a lot to lose.

Katie and I have kids, so she would also qualify for $2,349/month of survivor’s benefits because she is caring for a child younger than 16. If we were not married, she would miss out on $451,008 of income over 16 years. That is separate from the benefit for a minor child (also $2,349/month) which is not related to marriage.

Estate Tax Deductions

As Sedaris wrote, married couples avoid taxes on passing money to each other in life and in death. But the piece also betrays the fact that in 2015 at the time of publication, Sedaris and his partner each would have had well over the $5.43 million in tax-free transfers of assets. That’s because the vast majority of Americans aren’t taxed on what they leave to heirs when they die. Federally, the amount that can be passed with no tax was lifted enormously in 2017 with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Today, you can give $12.92 million tax-free federally. Many states have their own estate tax, but they all have exclusions in the millions.

The benefit of being married is clear when there’s a large amount of money intended to be used by both spouses. Finding creative ways to get around these taxes keeps estate attorneys busy creating a host of trust structures.

Assumption of Parentage

Another benefit of marriage is that when you give birth, your spouse is assumed to be the co-parent. You don’t have to do anything more to prove it just to get the non-gestational parent’s name on the birth certificate.

However, some non-gestational parents still use legal procedures such as a second-parent adoption to validate their place in their child’s life. This process is as invasive and drawn out as if you were adopting someone else’s baby. If you are a same-sex couple or outed as trans, having an adoption is said to be more likely to hold up in hostile locales than the assumption of parentage. We have heard of ex-spouses and other parties trying to strip parental rights from a non-gestational parent in court, with mixed results.

So, while it isn’t bullet-proof, the birth certificate is a record that is useful in daily life and may provide some help in a custody case as well.

Protection of the Dependent Spouse in Divorce

Divorce rates have declined as Americans become increasingly selective about whether and whom to marry. In fact, a statistic that I have not closely analyzed states that those working as Actuaries divorce at a rate of only 17.0%. (Takeaway message: financial professionals have amazing marriages.)

Still, we know that many who marry later divorce. Divorce laws may help to keep a dependent spouse from being left destitute.

The spouse who earned less may be able to receive spousal support (i.e. alimony) after a marriage ends, especially in the case of marriages lasting over 10 years. They also will likely walk away with some of the ex-spouse’s assets, especially in community property states like Washington or California.

Often, partnered people rely on a partner’s income, pool resources, and limit their career to care for kids or support their partner’s dreams. If you do this with someone you are not married to, there is no system in place to force an equalization if you split up.

The Upshot

There are various other policies that will require partners to be married to reap the benefits; for example, marriage requirements to extend workplace benefits will vary from place to place.

Many of us came out of 2013 thinking that as soon as we got married the government was going to hand us piles of cash. That’s not necessarily the case.

If your incomes are similar, you don’t have kids, and you aren’t multi-millionaires, you may be surprised to find that not much has changed financially.

So if you choose to marry, you may end up with nothing more than a lovely set of stemware, some nice cards, and a relationship with another person.

Happy pride month! Invite me to your gay wedding!

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