Getting married is a big decision, and it isn't just about making a lifelong commitment to your partner: Marriage is a legal contract. When you get married, you not only accept rights and benefits but also take on legal and financial obligations.
Definition of Marriage
Marriage is the legal union of two people, who are joined together after they obtain a marriage license from their state and take part in a ceremony. In most states, only a man and a woman can get married, but in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont, same-sex couples can marry too. In some other states, including California, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia, same-sex partners can enter into marriage-like relationships with rights and obligations similar to those of marriage. (If you're interested, see Same-Sex Marriage Pros and Cons )
In some states, heterosexual couples can become legally married without a license or ceremony. This type of marriage is called a "common law" marriage. A common law marriage is created when two people live together for a significant period of time (not defined in any state), hold themselves out as a married couple, and intend to be married. For more information, see Common Law Marriage FAQ.
Before the Wedding
When you get married, the rights and responsibilities of that relationship are defined by the laws of the state in which you live. However, you and your spouse may be able to modify the rules by creating a premarital (or prenuptial) agreement (for example, you can agree to keep your property separate). Before you say "I do," you might want to consider the following:
- How should we manage our assets? (Can we keep some items separate?)
- Should I sign a prenuptial, or premarital, agreement?
- How can I create a legally binding prenuptial agreement?
- Do I need a lawyer to make a prenuptial agreement?
For answers to these questions, visit the Prenuptial Agreement area of Nolo's website.
Whether you opt for a simple ceremony in City Hall or a black-tie gala with all the trimmings, you'll need to meet some basic requirements and make certain legal and financial preparations for your impending marriage. You'll need to know the answer to these questions:
- What are the legal requirements for marriage?
- How can I get a marriage license and certificate?
- Do we need to get blood tests before getting a license?
- Who is allowed to perform the ceremony?
For the answers, see Marriage Requirements, Licenses, and Ceremonies FAQ.
Marriage Rights and Benefits
Once you're married, you receive numerous rights and benefits. These range from tax and inheritance benefits, to alimony and child support in the event of a divorce, to your right to take bereavement leave from your job if your spouse should die. Marriage rights and benefits fall into the following categories:
- tax benefits, when you file jointly with your spouse
- estate planning benefits, including inheritance rights
- government benefits, including receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for your spouse
- employment benefits, such as obtaining health insurance through your spouse's employer and the right to take medical leave to care for a spouse who becomes ill
- decision-making benefits, including the right to make medical decisions if your spouse is incapacitated
- financial support, including equitable property division in a divorce
- consumer benefits, such as family rates for health, homeowners', auto, and other types of insurance.
For same-sex married couples, federal benefits of marriage aren't available because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act. For details about that and about the rights listed above, see Marriage Rights and Benefits.
Financial Responsibilities of Marriage
You will take on certain responsibilities when you get married. The responsibilities vary from state to state, but commonly include the following:
- financial support of the children of the marriage
- liability for certain kinds of family expenses
- sharing income and property acquired during the marriage
- financial responsibility for your spouse in the case of a divorce.
After the Wedding
After you've tied the knot, you are legally joined to your spouse. This means that, when the honeymoon's over, you may be in line for some paperwork. All of the following are optional, however:
- Changing your name legally. (To find out how, see Changing Your Name After Marriage.)
- Adding your spouse to your health insurance policy.
- Adding your spouse as your beneficiary on bank accounts, retirement plans, securities, and life insurance policies. (For more information, see How to Avoid Probate.)
- Updating your estate planning documents: will, trusts, powers of attorney, and living wills. (For help, see the Wills, Trusts & Estate Planning area of Nolo's website.)
- Adopting your spouse's children. (For more information, see Stepparent Adoptions.)
Want to Learn More?
If you want to consider opting out of some of the rules of marriage, Nolo's book, Prenuptial Agreements: How to Write a Fair & Lasting Contract, by Katherine E. Stoner and Shae Irving, provides detailed information on every state's laws about prenups and marital property. It also explains what you can and can't do with a prenup, helps you decide whether or not you need one, and walks you step by step through the process of drafting your own agreement.