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Is Marriage a Good Financial Move for Older Couples?

It's not as clear as you might think

Thousands of same-sex couples flocked to say "I do" as soon as their right to marry became the law of the land. Thousands of others, however, considered their options, yawned and stayed home. The case for marriage isn't as solid as it often sounds, especially for older couples of any sex. Sometimes it pays to live together in unwedded bliss.

Those who tie the knot summon traditional values and romance — flowers, rings and a whale of a party. Financially, marriage provides access to state and federal spousal and survivor benefits, including Social Security. You'll get Medicare if you didn't qualify on your own. Spouses have a right to inherit if their mate dies without a will (but surely, nobody reading this column lacks a will!). You can generally make medical decisions for each other even though you neglected to sign an official health care proxy. You get better tax benefits when inheriting an individual retirement account and might even save some money by filing a joint income-tax return.

Sometimes, however, marriage comes at a cost. Widows and widowers of public employees who receive a pension might lose it if they remarry. That's also true of certain veterans benefits. Before marrying, check your plan's rules, taking nothing for granted. If you're collecting survivor benefits on a late spouse's Social Security account, you'll lose them if you remarry before you reach 60 (50 if disabled). You can keep them if you remarry at a later age, but you might become eligible for better benefits on your new spouse's account at age 62 or older. Ask Social Security what your options are and which choice will produce the higher check.

You don't have to walk down the aisle to get many of the protections of marriage. A "living together" agreement, legally signed and notarized, provides for the division of property if you break up. A will can provide a partner with financial support. You can designate your partner as your health care advocate, if that's your choice. Marriage might not even improve your financial security if you both have adequate pensions and Social Security earnings. In some cases, filing jointly might drive your tax bill up.

Here's another reason not to marry: In many states, spouses are responsible for each other's medical bills — potentially including bills for long-term care. These laws generally trump any prenuptial agreement. So how is your beloved's health? Does he or she have long-term care insurance? Unless one of you lost a previous spouse after a long illness, these potential expenses probably aren't on your radar screen.

State Medicaid programs cover most or all of the nursing-home expenses for people of modest incomes and assets. The spouse who is well keeps the house, car and a certain amount of income and other assets, but might have to surrender property of higher value to help pay the bills. A live-in partner would not be liable but would lose the use of the ill partner's income and assets, including possibly the home. Meet with an elder-care attorney to see what your options are. To find one locally, try the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

In relationships, feelings ultimately rule. Marriage confers social approval and a sense of security. Living together reflects the trust built up over many companionable years. But it is best to know how that choice affects your finances.

Jane Bryant Quinn is a personal finance expert and author of Making the Most of Your Money NOW. She writes regularly for the Bulletin.

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