Q&A - Unmarried Couples


Topic:  Cash & Debt Management

Q: My partner and I are not married. What general advice can you provide for us and couples in similar circumstances?

A:  Unmarried couples made up roughly ten percent of all the households in America with adult couples, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. These unmarried couples include everyone from young people planning to marry to same-sex couples committed to life-long relationships to older people living together to share expenses but with no intention of marrying. Regardless of why unmarried couples choose to live together, they share one thing in common: potentially complicated financial issues, many of which are not faced by married couples. Here are some tips for addressing those financial issues.

  • Plan ahead. The needs of roommates with few financial resources sharing an apartment for a few months is quite different from a wealthier unmarried couple planning a life together. The deeper and more long-lasting the commitment, the greater the need for professional financial planning and perhaps the help of an attorney.

  • Consider a written living-together contract. Not unlike a prenuptial agreement, this contract spells out the sharing of expenses and who owns what property and how it will be divided in the event of a breakup. Married couples have legal guarantees regarding property, but unmarried couples don't. For example, a partner who has contributed mortgage payments or renovation funds on a home owned by the other partner may find themselves with no legal claim to the property if the couple splits up. However, these contracts are not enforceable in all states.

  • Work out the bills. It's often recommended that basic household bills such as rent and food be paid out of a joint account, with each person contributing according to his or her income. Each partner should have separate accounts to cover individual needs, such as clothing or personal financial obligations to others.

  • Get powers of attorney. An incapacitating illness or accident may require that financial and health care decisions be made by the partner. Without a properly drafted durable power of attorney and a health care proxy, the partner may end up legally pushed aside by the incapacitated partner's next of kin.

  • Write a will. While a spouse normally is automatically entitled to the couple's assets even without a will, an unmarried partner can easily be cut out unless the other partner's will specifically includes the person. No homemade wills here, either, recommend experts. They're more easily challenged by hostile relatives.

  • Do estate planning. Estate and gift taxes are a real issue for unmarried couples because property generally can't be passed to each other free of tax, as it can be between married partners. For example, if one partner who owns a home puts an unmarried partner (or anyone else, for that matter) on the deed, it may be considered an immediate gift and subject to gift tax. A spouse could take advantage of the marital deduction. Titling of assets is also critical, particularly if a living-together contract is not enforceable. Experts often recommend that unmarried partners own a home or other property as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, though this can be a problem if the couple doesn't have a long-term commitment. Unmarried couples also can make use of living trusts, which help avoid probate and are more resistant than wills to challenges by family members.

  • Review employer's benefits. Some employers will extend certain benefits, such as health and dental care, to employees' partners, but the majority do not. If the benefits are extended to the partner, they probably will be treated as taxable income. Also consider making the partner beneficiary of group life insurance policies.

  • Review tax issues. Unmarried partners who earn similar income actually are better off from an income-tax standpoint than married couples faced with the "marriage penalty." However, an unmarried partner with a large income can't use the deductions of a partner who makes far less money. Older unmarried couples can earn higher income than married couples before their Social Security becomes subject to tax.

  • Plan retirement. Unmarried couples typically have to work harder to save for retirement. For one thing, each will have no right to the other's Social Security benefits in the event of death. It's usually good to name each other as beneficiaries for individual retirement accounts and retirement plans at work. However, unlike married couples, you won't be able to roll over tax free an unmarried partner's IRA or qualified retirement plan into your own IRA.