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Sunday, March 7, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Marriage offers host of legal entitlements

Seattle Times staff reporter

For the romantic, marriage brings to mind string quartets and "happily ever after." But for the pragmatist, matrimony has more to offer than the mushy stuff — and we're not just talking about a blender from Williams-Sonoma.

Marriage is a rather practical arrangement, bestowing a laundry list of legal entitlements and economic incentives, even health benefits.

"There are literally hundreds of federal laws that give benefits to people based on the status of legal marriage," said Raegen Rasnic, a family-law attorney at the Seattle firm Skellenger Bender.

For instance, she said, the federal law governing Social Security benefits speaks in terms of "husband" and "wife" and "widow" and "widower," so an unmarried partner would not receive survivor benefits.

Other major health and welfare programs, such as food stamps, welfare and Medicaid, also favor married couples. The spouse of a Medicaid recipient can receive medical assistance not available to an unmarried partner.

With the recent spate of gay marriages, it's unclear what legal benefits these newlyweds will enjoy. Under state law, Washington does not recognize gay marriages from other states.

The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act excludes same-sex couples from spousal benefits of federal programs like Social Security and Medicaid.

But marriage, as traditionally defined, carries many other legal inducements:

Child custody: If a married couple splits up or one spouse dies, the other has a presumed right to continue custody or maintain some contact with his or her child. Unless the unmarried partner has legally adopted the child, a breakup or spouse's death can completely cut the person out of the child's life.

"That happens, and it's really very tragic," Rasnic said.

Inheritance: If one spouse dies without a will, the other has rights to inheritance. The surviving spouse also has the right to pension benefits and the right to make burial decisions. A surviving spouse also can receive wrongful death benefits for a partner.

Hospital visitation: A spouse can visit a partner or partner's child in the hospital and make medical decisions on a partner's behalf.

Military benefits: Married partners are eligible for veterans and military benefits.

Immigration: Someone from another country who weds a U.S. citizen gains immigration rights.

Health insurance: Spouses are covered under many company health-insurance plans. They also can take bereavement or sick leave to care for a partner. Many companies now extend these benefits to unmarried domestic partners.

Court: Marriage protects couples from having to testify in court against each other.

Property: In Washington, transfers of property between spouses are exempt from real-estate excise tax. If an unmarried couple splits up and one keeps the house, excise tax would be due on the transfer.

Some rights, such as obtaining medical power of attorney, can be arranged by a lawyer, but no contract can override most of these federal laws.

If the law's largesse isn't enough incentive, research shows married people are healthier, happier and richer, and they live longer and have better sex lives than singletons, said Julie Brines, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Washington.

There's a catch, she notes: These benefits are much more pronounced in husbands than wives, whose lives improve only marginally. Plus, it's not clear whether marriage actually confers this bounty or whether happy, healthy people are just more likely to get married.

Legal and life-span benefits aside, marriage is regretted as often as it's romanticized. Four out of 10 marriages end in divorce, which psychologists list as one of the most stressful ordeals a person can go through. There are financial risks as well. When you marry someone you are legally responsible for debts that person incurs.

"The fact that marriage rates are declining and people are marrying later in life suggests there's not the benefits there used to be," said Shelly Lundberg, an economics professor and director of UW's Center for Research on Families.

Julia Sommerfeld: 206-464-2708 or jsommerfeld@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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