By Jonathan S. Kuttin
The opportunity for same-sex couples to legally marry has expanded to 37 states and Washington D.C. with more likely on the horizon. The social and emotional benefits of living in a legally recognized union have been widely discussed. But what does legal marriage mean for your finances when you’re a same-sex couple?
There are a number of immediate and long-term benefits.
More protection for your shared assets. With the repeal of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), certain federally mandated financial benefits previously reserved for heterosexual married couples now also apply to legally married same-sex couples. Some pertinent provisions include:
• Marital deduction for gift and estate taxes. Spouses married in a state recognizing same-sex marriages (who are also U.S. citizens) can pass property to one another without incurring gift tax while living and estate tax after death. This provision of tax law is significant because it means bypassing potential gift and estate taxes levied upon nonmarried couples who transfer property or other assets to each other.
• Social Security benefits. If you or your spouse dies, your marriage certificate and the duration of your marriage are used in determining if the surviving spouse will be the beneficiary of the deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits. In some cases, same-sex couples may need to reside in certain states that recognize the marriage. To further protect your Social Security benefits, the Social Security Administration encourages all same-sex couples to apply for benefits to preserve any claim.
• Beneficiary status. Your spouse will be recognized as your beneficiary on your insurance policies, retirement plans and items of property. This is true as long as he or she is your named beneficiary — make sure to update all of your beneficiary designation forms once you’re married. It’s also important to keep in mind that the spousal consent rules for retirement plans that require the spouse to provide written consent if the primary beneficiary named is someone other than the spouse, applies to same-sex married couples.
• Shared work benefits. Many companies provide spouse benefits that have significant value. For example, your marital status may afford you or your spouse reduced cost health and life insurance through an employer.
• Combined household efficiencies. Don’t underestimate the financial benefit of pooling your income and sharing the expense of running a household. While you can cohabit without marriage, your marital status may improve your ability to sign a lease or close on a loan (assuming you both have good credit and contribute income).
• Income tax perk or penalty? Depending on your combined income, and each spouse’s income, your legally recognized same-sex marriage may or may not improve your income tax situation. If one spouse does not work or has a low annual income, your combined income as joint filers may be taxed less than the separate incomes of two single filers. However, if you and your spouse are both high earners, together you may land in a higher tax bracket (or be subject to additional taxes or phase-outs) than you would if you each filed as single individuals, potentially resulting in a larger tax liability from filing jointly.
• Get professional advice. Merging your finances as a legally married same-sex couple can be tricky because of variations in state laws and other legal considerations. A same-sex couple’s marriage may be respected for purposes of some laws but not recognized for purposes of other laws. Your situation may be complicated if you previously utilized trust documents to “work around” inequities before marriage was a viable option.
While you may not be able to avoid a steeper income tax rate as married joint filers, you can employ other strategies to minimize your tax burden and untangle complicated trust work-arounds. Seek out professionals such as a tax advisor, lawyer and financial advisor to work through the complexities that can arise when same-sex couples merge their financial lives. Together you can explore solutions to help build a secure financial future.
Jonathan S. Kuttin, CRPC®, AAMS®, RFC®, CRPS®, CAS®, AWMA®, CMFC® is a Private Wealth Advisor with Kuttin-Metis Wealth Management, a private advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services Inc. in Melville, N.Y. He specializes in fee-based financial planning and asset management strategies and has been in practice for 20 years.