The Legal Benefits of Marriage

MarriagePersons who are legally married have long enjoyed a wide range of benefits in the United States, including:

  • Employment benefits—health insurance, family leave, bereavement leave
  • Family benefits:
    • Adoption rights and joint foster care rights
    • The right to a portion of jointly owned property upon separation or divorce
  • Government benefits:
    • Social Security benefits (you may receive your spouse’s Social Security benefits if you are at least 62 or if you are caring for a child under the age of 16)
    • Medicare
    • Disability benefits
    • VA benefits and public assistance
  • Tax and estate planning benefits:
    • the marital tax deduction (you are allowed to transfer any asset to your spouse at any time without paying taxes on that asset)
    • the option to file joint tax returns, which is especially beneficial If one spouse earns significantly more than the other
    • the right to inherit your spouse’s estate without paying an estate tax
  • Medical and death benefits:
    • The right to visit your spouse in the hospital
    • The right to make medical decisions for an incapacitated spouse
    • The right to participate in burial and funeral arrangements
  • Consumer benefits—discounts to families or couples

The Validation of Same Sex Marriage

Over the past two decades, U.S. law has expanded the recognition of the right to marry to include same-sex couples. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. That ruling afforded federal benefits to same-sex partners in those states that had legalized same-sex marriage. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges established that same-sex couples enjoy the legal right to marry, along with all other financial and legal rights that accompany marriage. The Court applied the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to confirm that if one state afforded same-sex couples the right to marry, recognition of their marriage could not be withheld by other states. It also held that states could not refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally entered into in another state. This decision means that same-sex marriages are recognized throughout the U.S. Prior to the Court’s Obergefell decision, thirty-seven states had recognized same-sex marriage. .

Common Law Marriage

A common law marriage is one that is recognized under state law without the requirement of a ceremony, a license, or any documentation. Common law marriage is a relationship entered into by a man and woman who consider themselves (or “hold themselves out as”) husband and wife. A common law marriage need not last for a specific period of time – a couple who consider themselves married, or simply behave is if they are married, are treated as married. As of 2019, only seven states clearly continue to recognize common law marriage: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Texas. The District of Columba also recognizes common-law marriage. In New Hampshire, common-law marriages are recognized only for the limited purpose of probate.

Domestic Partnership

Domestic partnerships, or civil unions, provide some of the same benefits of marriage, and before the right to marry was extended to same-sex couples, such couples often entered into these legal arrangements. Unlike common law marriage, a domestic partnership is typically a formal legal arrangement that must be registered to be recognized. In a domestic partnership, the gender of the partners is irrelevant, but both partners must be over 18, not related to each other, not involved in another domestic partnership or marriage, and cohabitate or share a permanent residence. Domestic partners possess some of the benefits enjoyed by spouses; they may be entitled to health insurance coverage or medical leave, depending on the law in their jurisdiction. Some states, such as Washington, legally converted most or all domestic partnerships registered in the state to marriages when they began to recognize same-sex marriage. To learn more about domestic partnerships, click here.

Updated January 14, 2019

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