Special Legal Issues for Unmarried Seniors Who Live Together

Here's why living together agreements are especially important for the growing number of unmarried older couples who live together.

The fastest-growing demographic group among unmarried couples is seniors (one source says that over the past decade, the number of unmarried partners over the age of 65 has increased by 70%). All of the same reasons that younger couples give for not marrying may apply to seniors as well—not wanting to repeat experiences from a bad marriage or not wanting the state involved in the relationship, for example—but for many seniors, finances are the biggest issue preventing legal matrimony.

Why Many Older Couples Don't Get Married

There are a number of common concerns that seniors have about tying the knot.

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. (However, you may get more from your new spouse's Social Security payment, so use the calculator available from the Social Security Administration to figure out whether this is a real problem for you.) The same is often true of pension benefits awarded to you as part of a divorce settlement.

Marriage can also affect the amount of taxes you're required to pay on your Social Security benefits when you begin receiving them. A single person can earn $25,000 per year before being taxed on those benefits, while a married couple can have total income of only $32,000 before taxes are levied.

Estate Planning. If you have college-age children, marriage may mean that your new spouse's income is counted for financial aid purposes, which in turn may reduce the aid your child is eligible for. And if you have adult children and want them to inherit the bulk of your estate, you must use careful estate planning to ensure that your wishes are carried out. Spouses have certain inheritance rights in many states, and if you want to do something that limits those rights you must make sure your documents are in good order.

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—check your divorce order.

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. Unmarried couples, no matter how intimately connected in personal and financial ways, don't take on this same responsibility.

With all of these potential concerns, it's no wonder seniors are cohabiting in droves. If you are considering getting hitched, we'd recommend seeing an attorney or tax professional who can advise you about the pros and cons of marriage in your particular circumstances. If this is a second marriage, see Nolo's Estate Planning for Blended Families, by Richard E. Barnes.

Why Living Together Agreements Are Especially Important for Seniors

A written living together agreement is especially crucial for seniors who have substantial property and assets and make joint purchases, for reasons discussed in Living Together Contracts: The Basics. In addition to preparing a written agreement spelling out legal and financial arrangements regarding money and property and home ownership, seniors should prepare estate planning documents such as a will and health care directive.

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