[Editor's Note: This post is being featured along with a post that makes the case AGAINST marriage. We wanted to present two different opinions about whether or not marriage is still relevant, important, and valuable today.]
I've been dating someone new and we're having an amazing time together. We've had a few conversations about the future, and as it tends to happen when two people talk about such things, marriage came up. When you've been married before – as we've both been – such conversations are a lot less wide-eyed with wonder and excitement than they are practical.
Do I want to do that again? When you think about it, the heart-warming, emotional benefits of being married aren't exclusive to matrimony. Anyone in a long-term monogamous relationship gets to participate the soul-satisfying joy of never having to date again, bypassing "choice paralysis," waking up to your best friend every day, having an established support system, confidante, someone to play with and laugh with and have physical intimacy with. So what makes marriage different from a committed relationship?
The conversation surrounding marriage equality really helped me get a sense of just how much weight marriage carries. When you look at the fine print, marriage is, without a doubt, an institution that confers preference on couples. This list provides ten reasons why marriage is a great idea.
1. Legally binding
When you get married, you are making a commitment to be together before your community, with legally binding repercussions. If you are a person of faith, being married in your religion before your god has similar, morally binding repercussions. These things have the power to influence how you deal with hardship, whether it happens within the relationship or is an external force.
Simply, when something doesn't go according to plan, hope or expectation, you have to consider whether it warrants taking legal action. For people of faith for whom divorce is not an option their conscience allows, saying "I do" is it, with no turning back.
2. Medical decisions and access
While an unmarried couple could draft a power of attorney or advanced medical directive, this can get complex. By getting married, you become "next of kin," meaning you have a right to visit your partner in the hospital as well as power to make medical decisions for him or her in the event of a medical emergency.
Because you become family when you're married, you and your partner get coverage under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which enables employees to take time off to care for ailing relatives. This protection, unfortunately, does not extend any guarantees to an unmarried partner.
Unmarried partners are not always able to get joint insurance for things like the car or the home. In terms of health coverage, a large number of companies still do not provide health benefits to unmarried partners. Even if you receive domestic partner health insurance benefits through a partner's company, when you're unmarried, you lose out when it comes time to file taxes.
The premium paid by an employer for a spouse is not taxable, but the employer's contribution to the coverage of a domestic partner is. Another drawback of not getting married is lack of protection through the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act [COBRA] (1985), which lets former employees and their spouses to stay on employer-provided health insurance plans by paying a premium. The act does not require employers to offer the same considerations to the unmarried partners of former employees. And, of course, unmarried partners don't have access to Medicare.
When it comes to children, married couples have an automatic right to joint parenting and joint adoption, things which are not so easy for unmarried couples. By this same token, kids of unmarried parents don't have an automatic legal relationship with both of their parents in the same way that children of a married couple do. Don't get me started on trying to travel to foreign countries when everyone's last names don't match.
Unmarried couples can't file taxes jointly, which may exclude them from benefits that married couples have access to. There are also incredible disadvantages when it comes to determining taxable income. For instance, if you sell your principal residence, you get to exclude $250,000 from your taxes – unless you're married, in which case the figure goes up to $500,000.
6. Spousal privilege in court
Not that you're planning on having any knowledge of nefarious or unlawful acts committed by your spouse, but being married protects you and a partner in two ways in court: being married protects you from being called to testify against a spouse in court; and any communication that happens between you and your spouse during marriage is considered privileged, meaning that what you share with one another during your marriage is protected from testimonial disclosure (unless spouses are suing each other in civil court or one spouse initiates criminal proceedings against the other, of course). The privileged status continues even after divorce or death. Unmarried couples are not equally protected.
Social Security provides support for a large faction of elderly Americans and their spouses. When a worker files for retirement benefits with Social Security, if that worker is married, his or her spouse may be eligible for a benefit based on the worker's earnings. This is not the case for unmarried partners.
If you are involved with a foreigner, it is possible to offer them legal passage to the United States under a K-1 visa, otherwise known as a fiancé or fiancée visa. Obtaining this type of visa is much easier than any other visa available (according to the Department of State, in 2009, out of 29,127 K-1 visa applications, only 1,449 were refused).
A K-1 visa is good for 120 days – if a foreigner marries their petitioner within 90 days, however, that foreigner becomes eligible for an adjustment of status to legal resident, enabling them to legally work in the country and, in two years, to initiate the process to become naturalized.
9. In the event of death
Brace yourself, this one sucks: When you are married, inheritance is automatic, whereas an unmarried partner would have to face the complexities of probate court in the case of a will. Because that's totally something you want to deal with when you're grieving the passing of your partner.
Another issue is that the assets received by a survivor are only exempt from taxes if that partner is a spouse. This came up in the DOMA case, if you remember: Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a same-sex couple, had been married in Canada and were recognized by New York, where they lived, as spouses. Unfortunately, because at the time of Spyer's death in 2009 the state did not recognize same-sex marriage, Windsor could not claim tax exemption for surviving spouses, resulting in her having to pay $363,053 in estate taxes. This is something that a surviving unmarried partner would have to face.
Something else that comes up (isn't that bad enough on top of the grief of losing someone you love? Apparently not) is the inability of a surviving unmarried partner to transfer retirement savings plans as is possible for spouses. Instead, the benefits from the plan must be distributed in full (and claimed by a surviving partner as taxable income, of course), or stay in the program to be distributed in keeping with the minimum distribution requirements.
What's more, in the event of death, an unmarried partner is not entitled to bereavement leave from work – and can't file wrongful death claims.
10. Ending things
There are, of course, considerations for what people do in the event that things don't work out. An unmarried couple doesn't have a system in place to assist them in disentangling their lives: determining assistance in the form of alimony, child support or distribution of assets.
When you think about it, marriage isn't just a "piece of paper" or a party that people are willing to cross the globe for. Marriage isn't something quaint or passé to scoff at, but a solid, very useful legal instrument on which to base a life together.
That's something I can get behind – especially now that these same protections are available to everyone at the federal level.