Love is wonderful, but there may be a few practical questions to consider.
I swore I would never remarry after my wife died from complications related to frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and Lou Gehrig’s disease at 53. The personality-altering disease took a toll on me as well. But that was 2014, and this is now.
Like many caregivers, I met a wonderful partner in my dementia support group. (Linda’s father has late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.) She invited me to coffee after Liz passed and our conversations flourished into a love affair that continues to deepen.
I made it clear at the outset that I had no desire to remarry. I told Linda that I never wanted to face caregiving again, that I didn’t want to take a loved one for granted again and that I needed to preserve as much of my estate as possible for my two children, one of whom has autism. She didn’t object.
Yet thoughts of marriage continue to tug at me. I’m 62. Linda’s 56. We love one another. But it’s the practical questions about getting married late in life that prompted me to bring up the subject with my financial adviser.
As Russ Weiss, a Certified Financial Planner with the Marshall Financial Group in Doylestown, Pa., says when older couples raise this issue: “It’s not just, should we move in together or should we get married.” The decision can significantly affect their finances.
In our case, Linda has two adult children from a previous marriage, earns very little money working in infant care at a Montessori school and has a subsidized health care policy because of the Affordable Care Act. I believed I could make things easier for her through marriage: She’d be covered by my health policy (for a modest payment) through my work at the Star Tribune newspaper where I’m an editor, and would be eligible for a share of my pension upon retirement, which I expect will be in three to five years. I hoped marriage would give me a small tax benefit by filing my income taxes jointly.
My financial adviser and tax accountant, Scott Beers of Lottsa Financial in Minneapolis, congratulated me on finding a loving partner. But he surprised me when he said marriage might be a bad idea, fiscally speaking, for Linda.
It would throw her into a higher tax bracket. Also, after I retire, give up my employer-sponsored health insurance and go on Medicare at 65, Linda might find that as a couple we made too much money for her to qualify for a subsidized health care plan.
Scott offered to run the numbers if we ever seriously contemplated the idea of marriage.
Apparently, we’re not the only older couple who may be dealing with issues like this. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of cohabitating adults age 50 and older rose 75 percent since 2007— faster than any other age group. That’s at least partly because money is a major bar against marriage for older adults.
“I don’t think there’s much to recommend getting married from a financial point of view,” said Brad Johnston of the Johnston Group, a financial advisory firm in Minneapolis.
Johnston said it often makes sense for older couples to remain single, especially when considering estate matters and children from prior marriages, which can complicate financial planning.
Pepper Schwartz, a University of Washington sociologist described as AARP’s love and relationship expert, has seen how marriage and cohabitation among older couples affect their finances. She recommends older couples contemplating marriage speak with a financial adviser and an attorney experienced with elder law or estate planning in the state where they plan to live.
“Getting married is a wonderful, romantic thing and it comes with certain rights as well as certain obligations,” Schwartz noted. “It’s a dollars and cents exercise you’d have to take a look at.”
She mentioned a couple she knows who got married in their early 60s. They had significant financial assets and their first tax bill as a married couple went up by around $40,000. “They got divorced,” she said. “They realized it was just too expensive for them to be married.”
Frederick Hertz, a lawyer with offices in Oakland and San Francisco and co-author of Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples, said many of his clients believe that marriage demonstrates a deeper commitment than living together. Some also choose to marry because they want their adult children to take their relationship seriously, he noted.
Even so, it’s increasingly common for older couples to live together without getting married, Hertz said, partly because that’s become more socially acceptable for boomers.
Hertz cautioned, however, that whether it makes economic sense to marry depends on facts specific to the couple.
He cited the case of a female client in California with a large tax debt and student loans. Generally, if she were to marry, her spouse would not be liable for her pre-marital debt. But California is unusual, because both spouses are jointly responsible for any debt that affects “community property,” whether it was incurred before or after the marriage.
In addition, Hertz said, if she remained single, a portion of her debt could be discharged (cancelled or forgiven by a financial institution) based on her finances. But if she got married, the couple’s joint income would eliminate that possibility.
Hertz also offered this advice to older couples contemplating marriage, regardless of where they live: If you’re receiving Social Security, a survivor’s pension or alimony income, evaluate how marriage would affect that income. If you’re a widow getting a survivor’s pension, for example, you could lose that income by getting married. Then, if the new marriage ends in divorce, you could find yourself on the rocks.
Marriage also could affect other financial benefits and obligations.
If you’re gay, living with HIV and participating in a low-cost drug program, Hertz said, marriage to a wealthy partner might disqualify you from the program due to your new joint income, driving your cost for medications to thousands of dollars a month.
Or if you have children in college who get financial aid, a new marriage might drive up your income, rendering them ineligible.
There may be long-term care implications, too.
Weiss gave the example of his male client who makes a substantial salary. His partner receives Social Security and is beginning to have cognitive problems. If she were to marry, Weiss said, their combined income would render her ineligible for Medicaid, which would ordinarily help pay for her long-term care. Her husband would then become liable for the cost, which can easily run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The top consideration for most older couples contemplating marriage is how it would affect Social Security, Weiss said.
In his own case, his girlfriend doesn’t make much money, but both he and her ex-husband make a good living. If her ex-husband were to die and she remained single, Weiss said, she’d get his Social Security survivor’s benefit. But if they marry, she’d lose that.
“We can probably get more out of Social Security by living together,” Weiss said.
By Dan Browning
Dan Browning is an investigative reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. He previously wrote a series of articles about his wife, Elizabeth Cummings Browning, a bright, loving, mother and talented singer-songwriter who was diagnosed in August 2012 with probable frontotemporal dementia (FTD), the most common form of brain wasting that strikes people under 60. @BrowningStrib