Legal and Financial Obligations of Marriages
Getting married is a big decision, and it isn't just about making a lifelong commitment to your partner: Marriage
is a legal contract. When you get married, you not only accept rights and benefits but also take on legal and
Getting married is a big decision, and it isn't just about making a lifelong commitment to your partner:
Marriage is a legal contract. When you get married, you not only accept rights and benefits but also take on
legal and financial obligations.
Definition of Marriage
Marriage is the legal union of two people, who are joined together after they obtain a marriage license from
their state and take part in a ceremony. In most states, only a man and a woman can get married, but in
California and Massachusetts, same-sex couples can marry too. In some other states, same-sex partners can
enter into marriage-like relationships with rights and obligations similar to those of marriage. )
In some states, heterosexual couples can become legally married without a license or ceremony. This type
of marriage is called a "common law" marriage. A common law marriage is created when two people live
together for a significant period of time (not defined in any state), hold themselves out as a married couple,
and intend to be married.
Before the Wedding
When you get married, the rights and responsibilities of that relationship are defined by the laws of the
state in which you live. However, you and your spouse may be able to modify the rules by creating a
premarital (or prenuptial) agreement (for example, you can agree to keep your property separate). Before
you say "I do," you might want to consider the following:
How should we manage our assets? (Can we keep some items separate?)
Should I sign a prenuptial, or premarital, agreement?
How can I create a legally binding prenuptial agreement?
Do I need a lawyer to make a prenuptial agreement?
Whether you opt for a simple ceremony in City Hall or a black-tie gala with all the trimmings, you'll need to
meet some basic requirements and make certain legal and financial preparations for your impending
marriage. You'll need to know the answer to these questions:
What are the legal requirements for marriage?
How can I get a marriage license and certificate?
Do we need to get blood tests before getting a license?
Who is allowed to perform the ceremony?
Marriage Rights and Benefits
Once you're married, you receive numerous rights and benefits. These range from tax and inheritance
benefits, to alimony and child support in the event of a divorce, to your right to take bereavement leave
from your job if your spouse should die. Marriage rights and benefits fall into the following categories:
tax benefits, when you file jointly with your spouse
estate planning benefits, including inheritance rights
government benefits, including receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for your
employment benefits, such as obtaining health insurance through your spouse's employer and the
right to take medical leave to care for a spouse who becomes ill
decision-making benefits, including the right to make medical decisions if your spouse is
financial support, including equitable property division in a divorce
consumer benefits, such as family rates for health, homeowners', auto, and other types of insurance.
Financial Responsibilities of Marriage
You will take on certain responsibilities when you get married. The responsibilities vary from state to state,
but commonly include the following:
financial support of the children of the marriage
liability for certain kinds of family expenses
sharing income and property acquired during the marriage
financial responsibility for your spouse in the case of a divorce.
After the Wedding
After you've tied the knot, you are legally joined to your spouse. This means that, when the honeymoon's
over, you may be in line for some paperwork. All of the following are optional, however, depending your
Change your name legally.
Add your spouse to your health insurance policy.
Add your spouse as your beneficiary on bank accounts, retirement plans, securities, and life
Update your estate planning documents: will, trusts, powers of attorney, and living wills.
Adopt your spouse's children.
Can anyone get married to anyone?
You must meet certain requirements in order to marry. These vary slightly from state to state, but generally
being at least the age of consent (usually 18, though sometimes you may marry younger with your parents'
not being too closely related to your intended spouse
having sufficient mental capacity -- that is, you must understand what you are doing and what
consequences your actions may have
being sober at the time of the marriage
not being married to anyone else
getting a blood test (in just a few states), and
obtaining a marriage license.
All but two states (California and Massachusetts) prohibit people of the same sex from
marrying. And all states prohibit a person from marrying a sibling, half-sibling, parent,
grandparent, great-grandparent, child, grandchild, great-grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, or
nephew. Some states have additional prohibitions.
Does any state recognize same-sex marriages?
Yes. In May 2004, Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples who live in the state, and in
June 2008 California began allowing same-sex marriages. These are the only two states that permit same-sex
marriage. In fact, many states have passed laws specifically barring same-sex marriages, and the number of
states with such laws is increasing. However, there are states that allow same-sex unions that are similar to
In California, domestic partnership still creates a marriage-like relationship in which same-sex partners have
nearly all the rights and responsibilities of spouses (and domestic partnership remains an alternative or
supplement to marriage in California). Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont offer civil union registration
for same-sex couples, who can register their partnership and receive all the benefits of state laws that apply to
married couples. New Jersey and Oregon have domestic partnership that also is equivalent to marriage. Hawaii,
Maine, Washington, D.C., and Washington State all have some form of registration for same-sex couples, with
varying levels of benefits--but none are marriage equivalents.
Marriage Rights and Benefits Missouri
Whether or not you favor marriage as a social institution, there's no denying that it confers many rights,
protections, and benefits -- both legal and practical. Some of these vary from state to state, but the list
Filing joint income tax returns with the IRS and state taxing authorities.
Creating a "family partnership" under federal tax laws, which allows you to divide business income
among family members.
Estate Planning Benefits
Inheriting a share of your spouse's estate.
Receiving an exemption from both gift taxes for all property you give or leave to your spouse.
Creating life estate trusts that are restricted to married couples, including QDOT trusts, and marital
Obtaining priority if a conservator needs to be appointed for your spouse -- that is, someone to make
financial and/or medical decisions on your spouse's behalf.
Receiving disability benefits for spouses.
Receiving veterans' and military benefits for spouses, such as those for education, medical care, or
Receiving public assistance benefits.
Obtaining insurance benefits through a spouse's employer.
Taking family leave to care for your spouse during an illness.
Receiving wages, workers' compensation, and retirement plan benefits for a deceased spouse.
Taking bereavement leave if your spouse or one of your spouse's close relatives dies.
Visiting your spouse in a hospital intensive care unit or during restricted visiting hours in other parts
of a medical facility.
Making medical decisions for your spouse if he or she becomes incapacitated and unable to express
wishes for treatment.
Consenting to after-death examinations and procedures.
Making burial or other final arrangements.
Filing for stepparent or joint adoption.
Applying for joint foster care rights.
Receiving equitable division of property if you divorce.
Receiving spousal or child support, child custody, and visitation if you divorce.
Living in neighborhoods zoned for "families only."
Automatically renewing leases signed by your spouse.
Receiving family rates for health, homeowners', auto, and other types of insurance.
Receiving tuition discounts and permission to use school facilities.
Other consumer discounts and incentives offered only to married couples or families.
Other Legal Benefits and Protections
Suing a third person for consortium (loss of intimacy).
Suing a third person for offenses that interfere with the success of your marriage, such as alienation
of affection and criminal conversation (these laws are available in only a few states).
Claiming the marital communications privilege, which means a court can't force you to disclose the
contents of confidential communications between you and your spouse during your marriage.
Receiving crime victims' recovery benefits if your spouse is the victim of a crime.
Obtaining immigration and residency benefits for noncitizen spouse.
Visiting rights in jails and other places where visitors are restricted to immediate family.
Note that if you are in a same-sex marriage in Massachusetts or a domestic partnership or civil union in any
of the states that offer those relationship options, many of the benefits of marriage won't apply to you,
because the federal government does not recognize these same-sex relationships. For example, you may not
file joint federal income tax returns with your partner, even if your state allows you to file jointly. And
other federal benefits, such as COBRA continuation insurance coverage, may not apply. Consult a lawyer
with expertise in this area to learn more about the rights and benefits available to same-sex couples.
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