About a year ago, I started reading an anonymous family finance blog called Tired but happy. At first, I thought it was written by a gay woman because she referred to her significant other using the word partner. I’m always wrong when I jump to conclusions. Over time, I learned that her partner was a man and they are raising a son together. I’ve always been fascinated by their decision not to marry so I recently asked if she would write a guest post about money and matrimony. These are her words…
Although we have been in a committed heterosexual relationship for over five years, my partner and I have chosen not to get married. For us, this is a choice. For many, marriage is not even an option. We object to marriage for many reasons.
I am uncomfortable with the religious overtones of marriage, and with the public spectacle and extravagance of most of today’s weddings. My partner objects to the state’s involvement in personal relationships, and feels that what should be basic human rights, such as access to health care, are awarded and withheld unfairly based on marital status.
We both feel that being “husband and wife” would make it harder to maintain our commitment to an anti-sexist family structure. And, for us, refusing to marry is a statement of solidarity with LGBT folks, who are denied the right to marry. We feel a responsibility to make this statement, although we can imagine circumstances (such as risking losing access to health care if one of us is terminally ill) that would override this.
This was not an easy decision, and it is a decision that we revisit regularly. At different times, we have both felt ambivalent about marriage, and doubted that we were taking the right approach. Our LGBT friends and family have also reacted in a variety of ways to our unmarried status. Some of our gay friends have said they don’t feel that it helps them for us to remain unmarried. Some have been happy that we’ve chosen to be allies in this way. One close friend, a biological woman in a relationship with a trans woman, told me that she didn’t think she could bring herself to be friends with a straight couple who was married, unless they were forced to marry to obtain citizenship.
In many ways, being a woman unmarried to my male partner is similar to being part of a same sex unmarried relationship. Legally and financially, we face many of the same challenges. But our situation is different, and I would argue that it is easier, in some key ways.
Here’s what we have in common with same sex couples.
Workplace partner benefits are a huge issue. Like many LGBT couples, our freedom to change jobs, and therefore our ability to grow in our careers, is severely limited by the ways some employers exclude us from necessary benefits like heath insurance. Ironically, my employer denies my partner health insurance because we’re a so-called straight couple. If we were same sex partners, he would be covered, but because he’s a man and I’m a woman, he’s not covered unless we’re married. On the other hand, three years ago we were fortunate that my partner’s employer changed its health insurance policy to include all unmarried couples, gay and straight.
Taxes are more complicated for us than for married couples. In our case, it actually benefits us at tax time to be unmarried. Because the IRS considers me a single mother, I qualify for many tax credits I wouldn’t be eligible for if we filed together.
We can’t afford to die. Since we’re unmarried, we don’t have that special exemption from inheritance taxes that married spouses have. That means if I kick the bucket, my grieving partner (who is also dealing with being suddenly a single father) will have to produce cancelled checks and other proofs to show that he paid for half of our house and related expenses. Otherwise, he’ll get taxed on the ENTIRE value of the house when I die. If he proves he paid for half of it, he has nine months to pay taxes on my half of the value. Oh, and all other money, including insurance payouts, that he inherits from me? He’s taxed on that too. Then there’s the fact that he wouldn’t be able to collect Social Security survivor benefits (although our son would get monthly checks until he’s 18). That’s why we own way more life insurance than a married couple with a similar income would need.
We can’t afford to break up. There are no divorce courts for unmarried partners. If we have an acrimonious breakup, all custody disputes related to our son are handled in family court. But if we need legal intervention to untangle other aspects of our relationship, we wouldn’t be in family court like our married-but-divorcing counterparts. We’d be in the regular courts, which are more expensive and take longer. Also, if we split up, we can’t simply sell the house and split the proceeds. The amount of money that could change hands between us would be limited by the cap on tax-free gifts, which is currently $12,000 annually. So I couldn’t write a check to my partner for more than $12,000 without getting slapped with a gift tax. It would be mighty hard to disentangle years of combined finances and assets without more than 12K changing hands in any given year.
But there are a few ways in which our situation is different from that of same sex couples.
We are not the targets of bigotry and hatred. My family might think I’m going to hell, and pity my son because he’s a “bastard”. My neighbors and friends might find our choices confusing, or even downright wrong. But I’m not receiving death threats. I can travel freely in the United States and abroad without fearing for my safety. The level of phobia and hatred toward LGBT folks far, far exceeds any of the disapproval and judgement we experience as a straight unmarried couple. With that said, here are the less significant ways our experiences differ from LGBT couples.
We both have equal rights as parents of our son. When our son was only hours old, we were given paperwork in the hospital with which to legally declare paternity. A slick brochure encouraged me to name my baby’s daddy, which studies had shown would help our child “stay in school and avoid crime”. A couple of signatures, and it was done. My son had two legal parents, and we had all the attending rights and responsibilities. There was no second-parent adoption necessary, no testimonials from friends and relatives to prove our fitness to become parents. It is getting easier for LGBT folks to become parents, but many, many people still struggle to have the right to raise children.
We could find ourselves married accidentally. We live in a common law state. If we don’t take measures to avoid fulfilling the criteria of common law spouses, we could wake up one day and find out that we’re legally married whether we like it or not.
We have the privilege of choosing whether to come out as unmarried. Unlike your average LGBT couple, we can pass for a traditional family if we choose to do so. That means we are constantly making the choice: In this situation, right now, am I going to exercise my privilege, and just let this person think we’re a “normal” straight, married couple with one child? Or am I going to take the opportunity to expose this person to the idea that there is something inherently unfair about the system of marriage?
At first, I almost always chose to confront people who assumed we were married or asked us when the big day was. “We’re not getting married until my mom and her [female] partner can get married,” I’d snarl. When I reacted too strongly, it was because I was taking out my anger at the whole system on folks who simply made the wrong assumption about my marital status.
These days, I don’t always have the energy to make a ruckus. And I’ve realized it’s not always the best strategy. I think it’s more constructive for people (especially people who haven’t been exposed to the idea of voluntarily abstaining from marriage) to see me as a happy person, a good parent, and a loving companion to my partner. If I’ve got a big chip on my shoulder, I’m not going to be able to instill a positive image of so-called alternative families. My goal is to plant seeds of doubt about the unequal, sexist, and heterosexist system of marriage, but that’s a slow, gradual process. Yelling isn’t going to make it happen any faster.
Luckily, there are a lot of resources out there for LGBT couples and unmarried straight couples. I lurk on the Alternatives to Marriage Project listserv. I recently read (and reviewed) Garrett and Neiman’s excellent book, Money without matrimony. I continue to think and write about being unmarried, and would welcome an ongoing dialog with readers about how unmarried straight allies of LGBT folks can work to change a system where marriage comes with a long list of privileges that are not available to everyone.