Things are going so well with your relationship. You’ve found the one you want to grow old with. Your thoughts go to living together or marriage, or first one and then the other.
Living together, whether or not that includes marriage, is a big step, not to be taken lightly.
Maybe you want to take that step, live together for a while, and see if marriage is in the cards.
Or maybe you want to jump right into marriage and then live together.
Either way, marriage or just co-habitation, there are many things to consider and decisions to be made.
In general, those decisions are best made in advance of actually diving in.
What do other seniors feel about co-habitation vs. marriage?
A Pew Research Center study of nearly 10,000 randomly selected U.S. adults found that:
“Married adults are more satisfied with their relationship and more trusting of their partners than those who are cohabiting.”
In particular, the study found that a majority of older adults say society is better off if couples who want to stay together long term eventually get married.
Living together whether or not marriage is in the plans
Cosmo and I have been living together for about 6 years.
Until recently, I had been collecting Social Security benefits on my ex-husband’s record, switching to my own benefit once I turned 70. This required me to remain single until then.
At this point, we have no plans to get married. Our relationship is strong and abiding. In fact, we have a better relationship than most any married couple we know.
Things could change, though, and marriage may make sense for us at some point.
Co-habiting may make a lot of sense for people of any age.
You’ll give yourselves the chance to get to know each other better, let the relationship evolve, and see whether the legal commitment of marriage makes sense for both of you.
These days, there’s certainly little to no stigma to living together, although your children or others close to you may object. So you don’t really need to get married, unless you want to.
If things don’t work out, going your separate ways will be painful and disruptive, but it’s easier than dealing with divorce. If you’ve already gone through a divorce in the past, you know this to be true.
What are other senior couples doing, marriage or living together?
Over the past two decades, co-habitation has been on the rise with older adults:
“Whether they find each other online, at the gym or at church, they are pairing up in unprecedented numbers and in untraditional ways. Remarriage rates over 50 have remained steady, but cohabitation in that age group has more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2020.
What’s different about these couples is not just how they partner. Boston University sociologist Deborah Carr has done preliminary analyses of older re-partnered couples and says they are likelier to be more equal financially, more autonomous as individuals and freer of gender roles. The same seems to be true whether they are remarried or cohabiting.
Changing social attitudes are also part of the picture. Cohabitation was once stigmatized as “living in sin” or lesser than marriage. Even if some still disapprove, many older adults don’t care. A typical attitude: I’m 60 years old, and I’ll do what I damn please.”
What about common-law marriage?
Don’t assume that you have a common-law marriage if you’ve lived together for a number of years, most typically pegged at 7 years.
That’s only true in these states: Colorado, District of Columbia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah.
In those 9 states, here’s how common-law marriage stacks up:
Common-law marriage — sometimes called informal marriage — is a marriage that’s established without legal formalities like taking out a marriage license or having a religious or civil ceremony. The basic features of a common law marriage are:
- two people mean for their relationship to be as a married couple
- they act on that intention by living together and holding themselves out publicly as a married couple
- when they established their marriage relationship, they lived in a state that recognizes common law marriage for all purposes, and
- they meet the basic requirements under state law for a legal common law marriage.
Once a couple meets these criteria for a common-law marriage, their legal status is just like any other marriage. That means they enjoy all the rights and benefits of marriage, including:
- inheritance rights and other estate planning benefits
- Social Security benefits
- tax treatment
- employment benefits, and
- the right to ask the court to divide your property or award alimony when ending the marriage.
But be aware that, for these 9 states:
There’s no such thing as “common law divorce.” If you had a valid common law marriage and then split up, you generally need to get divorced under your state’s laws that apply to ending all marriages, particularly if you want the court to issue orders dividing your property or awarding alimony.
Commonalities between living together and marriage
Some benefits are derived from either scenario.
When you live together, whether or not you’re married, you’re likely to:
- Be less lonely because (obviously) you’re not alone.
- Decrease your living expenses because you’ll share in household costs.
- Share in the burden of household chores.
- Share with parenting or grandparenting.
- Develop a more deeply committed and trusting relationship over time.
Benefits of living together without marriage
It’s no wonder that more and more couples over 65 are choosing cohabitation over marriage.
For the most part, finances are the main reason why older couples aren’t getting married.
Social Security and Pensions. If you are divorced and you remarry before age 60, you’ll lose Social Security income from a previous marriage to which you would have otherwise been entitled.
Estate Planning. If you have college-age children, marriage may mean that your new spouse’s income is counted for financial aid purposes, which could reduce the aid your child is eligible for. And if you want your adult children to inherit the bulk of your estate, you need to put careful estate planning in place.
Alimony. If you were in a long-term marriage that ended in divorce and you’re receiving alimony, you’ll most likely have to give that up when you remarry.
Tax bite. Married couples typically pay higher taxes on Social Security benefits than unmarried partners.
Medical Expenses. When you marry, you take on responsibility for your partner’s support and care. If your new spouse has serious health concerns, you may not want to take on that financial responsibility.
Is a cohabitation contract right for you?
When you live together without marriage, you have no legal rights to each other’s property.
This may not matter as long as you’re together, but if you split up and go your separate ways, you could have big problems.
A cohabitation property agreement could solve those problems.
What is it and how does it work?
Like any other contract, it’s basically an agreement to do (or not do) certain things in return for some benefit — what’s known in legalese as “consideration.” A valid contract must include consideration. Otherwise, it’s essentially a promise to provide a gift — and, as such, courts won’t enforce it.”
Here are some issues that couples typically include in a cohabitation property agreement:
- how they’ll handle ownership of any property either or both of them acquire during their relationship, including property they buy, inherit, or receive as a gift
- their expectations about pooling resources and finances, as well as other contributions to their relationship
- how they’ll handle paying for household expenses, such as food and utilities
- how they’ll handle obligations to each other and a landlord when they share a rented home
- whether they’ll have separate or joint control over their earnings
- if they buy a residence together, what will happen to it if they split up
- what will happen to their other property if they separate or either dies
- how they’ll allocate responsibility for any joint debts after a breakup, and
- whether one partner will pay some kind of support to the other after their relationship ends.
There are a few states where cohabitation agreements aren’t legal, so check to be sure you’re in a state that does.
Legal issues of living together without marriage
If you’re living together without being married (common-law or otherwise), here are some downsides you may not have considered.
Unless you’ve done the appropriate advance planning and have all necessary paperwork in place, these things could happen:
🚩 Your partner is hospitalized and unable to make healthcare decisions, and they don’t have a healthcare power of attorney. Hospitals consider your partner to be a “legal stranger” and you won’t be able to make medical decisions for her or him.
🚩 Your partner becomes incapacitated without proper estate planning and financial power of attorney. Their assets will likely be frozen by their financial institutions and you won’t have access to them.
🚩 Your partner has a terminal illness and is near the end of life. Without a living will, you won’t be able to make critical life and death decisions for them.
🚩 Your partner dies without a will or naming you in their will or living trust. You won’t be legally entitled to inherit any of their assets. They will instead go to your partner’s blood relatives, typically their children or siblings.
🚩 Your partner dies and you’re living in their home. If you’re not on the deed or they haven’t specified in their will that you have the right to occupy the home for life, you may have to move, and quickly.
By the way, those legal documents don’t cover every scenario.
For instance, I recently learned that Social Security doesn’t recognize the directives in any of the documents noted above when an unmarried partner needs to step in and control their incapacitated partner’s benefits.
The fix is simple. You’ll each need to let Social Security know (either via your online account or by phone) that your partner has authority in these matters.
Marriage for seniors: The pros and cons
Marriage (at any age) brings up issues like whether or not to get a prenup and whether to take your spouse’s last name.
Marriage for seniors comes with its own set of special circumstances.
You should consult with your attorney, accountant and/or tax specialist to look more closely at your own situation, but here are some things to consider.
The good things about getting married for seniors
There may be many emotional reasons why seniors want to get married.
For one thing, studies show that married people are happier than single people.
W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, noted:
“Marital quality is, far and away, the top predictor I have run across of life satisfaction in America. Specifically, the odds that men and women say they are ‘very happy’ with their lives are a staggering 545 percent higher for those who are very happily married, compared to peers who are not married or who are less than very happy in their marriages.
When it comes to predicting overall happiness, a good marriage is far more important than how much education you get, how much money you make, how often you have sex, and, yes, even how satisfied you are with your work.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote,
“Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other. This notion — that marriage is the best answer to the deep human desire for connection and belonging — is incredibly seductive.”
I believe that both statements above also apply to a committed, live-in relationship.
Financial benefits of being married
Emotional reasons aside, here are some financial benefits to getting married:
Estate taxes. A married person can generally leave an unlimited amount of money to their spouse without paying any estate tax. In addition, the surviving spouse can use any unused portion of the deceased spouse’s lifetime estate tax exclusion upon his or her death.
Insurance. When you and your new spouse combine households, you will often combine insurance plans, one of the main benefits of marrying later in life. From auto to homeowners insurance, you may be able to get a more favorable rate when you get married older.
Social Security benefits. You’re each eligible to collect your own Social Security benefit or up to 50 percent of your spouse’s benefit, whichever is greater.
Some not-so-good things about getting married for seniors
Once you get married, you take on your spouse’s medical debts. If they end up in a nursing home, that could take a big chunk out of your assets. Medicare alone doesn’t cover most of this expense.
The wedding itself comes with cost and stress factors. Even the simplest of weddings can be highly stressful, and some can be quite expensive.
And then there’s the way other debt is handled:
If you co-sign a debt — or open a joint credit account together — you would share responsibility for those equally. The rules regarding the equal sharing of debt that’s in only one of your names after marriage depends largely on where you live.
If you live in a community property state, most debts incurred after marriage may be treated as the responsibility of both spouses. Nine states have community property laws:
- New Mexico
In common-law states, debt taken on after marriage is usually treated as being separate and belonging only to the spouse who incurred them. The exception are those debts that are in the spouse’s name only but benefit both partners. For instance, that might include credit card debt if the card was used to pay for basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter.
What’s the deal with marriage proposals?
You’re probably aware of the grand gesture Hollywood movie romance proposals that have been baked into our culture.
Things like the man getting down on his knee at a large sporting event and proposing on camera.
Or doing the same in a crowded restaurant.
The woman is completely taken by surprise (as if she had no idea marriage would be in the works).
And, she’s uncomfortably put on the spot, in public. She’s expected to instinctively say “yes” to one of the most important life choices she’ll ever face.
This makes no sense to me.
Unless you jump into marriage quickly (never a good idea), you’ve known each other for a while and maybe you already live together.
How could the very idea of marriage come out of the blue with a proposal? How could the couple not have discussed this already?
And for those of us who are over 60 and have probably been down this road before with an ex-spouse, wouldn’t we rather have a conversation than a big show?
But I suppose, if a traditional marriage is what you’re after, then maybe you DO want the big show.
In my thinking, now at age 70, the big show proposal or even a quiet surprise proposal doesn’t fit with the kind of equal partnership I want.