How Marriage Affects Your Legal and Financial Status

Whether you’re thinking about getting engaged, planning a wedding, or just recently tied the knot, it’s important to understand the legal and financial effects of marriage. LawDepot on February 12, 2020

Isn’t it wonderful when you finally find the person who you want to spend the rest of your life with? Well, of course it is! Congratulations!

Still, sometimes love makes us see the world through rose-colored glasses—and a lifelong commitment isn’t a decision you should take lightly. So, whether you’re thinking about getting engaged, planning a wedding, or you’ve recently tied the knot, it’s important to understand the legal and financial effects of marriage.

From making health care decisions to claiming inheritance rights, we’ll let you know what really changes when you get married and which legal documents you need once you say, “I do.”

How does marriage impact my legal status?

Getting married has several legal impacts on your estate plans, including changes to the way you fill out government forms, resolve family issues, and make healthcare decisions. 

Applying for a marriage license and changing your marital status

Prior to walking down the aisle, you and your future spouse must apply for a marriage license (also known as a marriage permit). This document proves that you have met all the legal requirements to be married.

To obtain a marriage license, visit a local registry in the city or county that you plan to exchange vows in. If you are having a destination wedding, you can get a marriage license from your home city and get married there before or after your destination wedding. In fact, many couples have a small wedding ceremony at home before hosting a larger reception at an alternate location.

Conversely, you can apply for a marriage license in the country you’re planning to travel to. In this case, you should contact the nearest consulate or embassy of the country where you will be married to find out their legal requirements for marriage. 

Regardless of where you choose to get married, be prepared to meet various requirements and have proper documentation for getting a marriage license, such as:

  • Proof of divorce or widowhood: People who are divorced or widowed and want to remarry must provide valid proof, such as a divorce decree or a death certificate.
  • Age of majority: If you are under the legal age in your state, you must acquire and present written parental consent to have a legally binding union.
  • Blood tests: Though increasingly uncommon, some states require engaged couples to undergo blood work to test for diseases or genetic disorders prior to marriage.

After you sign the marriage certificate at your wedding ceremony and your officiant files the marriage certificate, your marital status officially changes to married.

Changing your legal surname

When you sign your marriage certificate, it does not result in an automatic name change. If you decide to change your surname to your spouse’s surname, you must bring your marriage certificate to any official institution that keeps records of your name to update your information.

Changing your name can be quite a tedious task. For example, you’ll need to notify places such as:

  • A local registry or DMV
  • Banking institutions
  • Insurance companies
  • Utility providers
  • Your employer

There are no legal consequences of retaining your given surname. However, you can encounter certain obstacles by having a different last name than your spouse and family. For example, if you have a different surname than your children, you may be asked to provide proof of your relationship in situations involving international travel or a question of guardianship.

Resolving issues or disputes in court

When you marry someone, you generally can’t be forced to testify against them in criminal court; this is a type of spousal privilege. Courts and governments in the US may recognize this privilege during legal actions to protect a couple’s relationship from undue harm. However, there are situations (such as domestic abuse) in which courts can make exceptions and ask you to provide evidence in the form of a testimony.

When providing a testimony, spouses in the US and Canada have the option to claim “communications during marriage,” another type of spousal privilege that protects confidential information shared between spouses. Though, it’s important to note that spousal privilege laws vary by jurisdiction.

If you marry someone with children from a previous relationship, you may consider adopting your new stepchildren. In many jurisdictions, there is a streamlined process of adoption for stepparents, especially if you’ve been married for more than one year. In some cases, courts may even override a biological parent’s objection to adoption in favor of the stepparent. 

Though, in general, new spouses do not have a legal obligation to support their stepchildren financially. This is the responsibility of the biological parents themselves. If you do choose to adopt, authorities will consider you a legal guardian and responsible for the care of your children.

Making health care decisions

Once you’re married, many health care professionals will often defer to your spouse for health care decisions when you can’t make them for yourself. However, this may not always be the case.

To be sure your spouse has the authority to make these kinds of decisions, you should appoint them as your health care agent (also known as a proxy) with a medical power of attorney. That being said, you should discuss your thoughts on medical procedures with your significant other and complete a Living Will to document your treatment preferences.

In addition to having the ability to make important health decisions for your spouse, marriage provides other benefits such as:

  • Being able to visit your partner in the intensive care unit of a hospital
  • Being eligible to take leave from work when your husband or wife is sick or injured
  • Being listed as a beneficiary on your spouse’s health insurance plan

How does marriage affect my financial status?

From shared assets to joint benefits, marriage typically changes the way you handle your finances.

Shared finances

If you’re in a long-term relationship, chances are you’ve already started combining finances with your significant other. Many couples share a bank account to pay for shared bills such as rent, utilities, or phone plans.

Although it’s up to you to share access to certain accounts or not, once you’re married your husband or wife becomes entitled to a portion of your estate. So, even if the two of you split, you may continue to be partially responsible for each other’s finances.

To modify this entitlement, you must specify separate assets before your wedding day. A Prenuptial Agreement specifies the assets that are shared and separate, helping to determine:

  • How to divide properties, assets, and joint debts
  • If one partner must provide alimony payments to the other
  • Restrictions on what each spouse can inherit from the other’s estate

Although some people may be reluctant to sign a prenup, it is especially beneficial if you have children from a previous relationship or have significant assets that you wish to keep separate.

Read MoreHow to Discuss Money with Your Partner

Shared property

Once married, you and your husband or wife will collect shared assets known as joint or marital property, such as real estate, vehicles, and more. And, as mentioned earlier, spouses are entitled to a portion of each other’s estate.

If one spouse dies without creating a Last Will, most jurisdictions consider the surviving spouse to be the first person with a claim to inheritance. With divorce, joint property will often be divided 50/50 unless otherwise stated in a Prenuptial Agreement or during divorce negotiations.

Often, one of the largest investments you make as a married couple is your home. Depending on your jurisdiction, courts may consider property acquired before marriage to be separate. However, if you purchase property together, each partner has equal interest in the property title.

To prevent any disputes about who is entitled to what, it’s important to review your Last Will and Testament when you get married to ensure it reflects your current wishes. If you wish to allocate a certain portion of your estate to your significant other, do so explicitly in your Will. Also, clearly specify the other assets you want to leave to other family members and friends.

Tax benefits

After marriage, you have the option to file joint or separate tax returns. To determine whether you’re eligible to file jointly, you must be married before December 31 of the tax year. If you’re wedding is not until the following January, you still qualify for single tax filing.

Filing a joint return has several benefits, including deductions and borrowing personal tax credits to lower the tax bracket of a partner. Though, in some cases, filing individually may also lower your tax bill. Be sure to consult with an accountant when determining your tax filing status.

Married couples can also avoid paying gift and estate taxes. Generally, if someone gives you money or leaves you a portion of their estate, you have to pay taxes on it (as it’s considered income). However, married couples are often exempt from these laws. If a spouse passes away and leaves money and other assets to their surviving spouse, the surviving spouse generally does not have to pay estate and gift tax on those gifts.

Beneficiary status

An excellent advantage to marriage is being able to list your spouse as a beneficiary on various health, retirement, life, and financial insurance plans.

For instance, spouses may be entitled to the benefits from:

  • Health care insurance
  • Social security
  • Disability benefits
  • Employee benefits
  • Retirement plans or pensions
  • Life insurance policies

If your spouse dies, you may still be able to claim your inheritance regardless of whether or not you were officially named as a beneficiary. This is called a spousal right, the enforcement of which varies by jurisdiction.

Understanding marital commitment

Marriage is a legal union between two people in which you make sanctioned commitments to one another. That means that the two of you are legally bound to each other, which affects your legal rights and financial responsibilities.

Now that you have a general understanding of what really changes after marriage, update some of your estate planning documents to protect and accommodate the special person in your life.