An increasing number of older Americans are cohabiting instead of marrying. A mosaic of financial-related, not always marriage-friendly rules may be largely responsible for keeping older singles from tying the knot.
As New York Times writer Stanley Luxenberg puts it: "Americans have long been retreating from marriage. While more people of all ages are living together, the growth of unmarried couples is fastest among the older segment of the population. In 2010, 2.8 million people aged 50 and over cohabited, up from 1.2 million in 2000, according to the United States Census Bureau. For many, the decision to remain single is a matter of money. A partner who remarries stands to lose alimony, Social Security or a survivor’s pension."
“Young people may be eager to marry for love, but older couples are more practical and worry about paying the bills,” Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, told Luxenburg.
Couples who are considering marrying when they're older can be concerned about a number of financial issues, inheritance rules or other things. Dating partners who were each widowed, for instance, may be interested in but unsure how to protect their individual assets for their own children, worried that if they marry, state community property and other inheritance laws will complicate things.
The financial reasons cited by Sheri and Bob Stritof, Ask.com's marriage experts, include tax disincentives, loss of military and pension benefits, fear of being stuck with a partner's medical expenses or credit rating or existing debt, ability to share expenses, health insurance, protecting assets, alimony and Social Security benefits. That last one, they note, causes a lot of confusion.
According to the Social Security Administration: "In general, you cannot receive survivors benefits if you remarry before the age of 60 unless the latter marriage ends, whether by death, divorce, or annulment. If you remarry after age 60 (50 if disabled), you can still collect benefits on your former spouse's record. When you reach age 62 or older, you may get retirement benefits on the record of your new spouse if they are higher."
Health concerns — and their costs — may also provide disincentives to marry or remarry at a certain age. In forums, seniors express worries about losing the resources they've accumulated over a lifetime because of a sweetheart's illness. One such forum, for example, provided by the Elder and Disability Law Center, notes that both spouses' assets are counted when someone applies for Medicaid. Limits apply to the assets one spouse is allowed to keep when the other spouse needs the government-funded program.
On the other hand, there are also worries that if a couple has not married and one of them dies or goes into long-term care, the other can lose the home they shared — either because the children of the person who "owned" the home come after it or because it could be claimed by the state to help cover the cost of care if the individual had to have help from Medicaid.
Notes the EDLC article, "Sometimes married couples have premarital or marital agreements by which each spouse waives his or her claims in the property of the other spouse. Medicaid does not recognize these agreements, and both spouses must list all of their individually and jointly owned assets."
The Times article concludes with an interview with Maryan K Jaross, a Denver-based financial adviser, who presents a bleak scenario. Writes Luxenberg: "She has counseled a close friend who obtained a pension after her husband died while serving in the military. The widow remarried. She lost the pension, gave up health insurance and the right to shop at a base commissary, where products sell at discounts. Her new husband died two years after the marriage, leaving her a widow with no support. The widow met another man, and this time she is cohabiting. “She is a staunch Catholic, but for now they are just living together,” Jaross told him.
Others point out that marriage offers good news and benefits, too. Ask.com's Senior Living section offers "five good reasons to marry after 50," starting with love and moving through the cost benefits of not maintaining two separate households, some tax benefits, as well as Social Security and pension benefits that pass to a spouse if one dies. There are also some automatic spousal rights and privileges, including the ability to have a say in health care settings, for example.
"When it comes to other taxes, such as estate and inheritance taxes, being married is clearly a plus," the Ask.com article says. "You can leave an unlimited amount of money and property to your spouse with no estate tax. In most states, your spouse will inherit automatically, even if you die without a will."