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When it pays to stay single
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"Her question was, 'If we did get married, would that be a bad idea?' My answer was that if they keep things separately, depending on the state [of residence], his debts in his name and her assets in her name, you're fine. But if he gets sued. ...

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"She said, 'Stop. I think we're going to wait.'"

Commingled credit and debt
That cautious woman's remarriage query also raised the issue of shared credit, which Garrett says can go hand in hand with liability worries.

The credit-reporting business has evolved so now each person has an individual credit score. So unless you borrow money together, getting married doesn't automatically hurt you from a credit standpoint, says Garrett.

Debt is a slightly different matter. That's because in some states, when you marry you also marry your spouse's debt, especially if post-marriage payments come out of a joint account.

"If you have a situation where one partner is heavily in debt, especially if the one in debt has fewer assets, marriage could potentially expose the nondebtor's assets," says Farber.

Where you live also could affect your debt status. In community-property jurisdictions -- Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin or Puerto Rico -- community property includes the earnings of both partners while married, as well as everything purchased with that money. If separate property is commingled with community property during a marriage, it could be viewed as community property. Similarly, all debts incurred during marriage, unless specifically noted as separate, become community-property debts.

It's easier to avoid responsibility for a spendthrift partner's debts when you simply live together. Just be sure you don't inadvertently invalidate this unmarried advantage. Don't take on joint transactions, such as helping your financially struggling partner pay an overdue loan, or it could show up on your record, too.

Securing survivor's benefits
When it comes to federal retirement benefits, marriage is advantageous for many couples. A surviving spouse gets to choose between his or her own benefits or those of the deceased spouse, whichever is greater. (This usually happens more often with women, says Garrett, though some men receive such benefits.)

There's no comparable survivorship payment for partners who just live together. But this benefit could interfere with the decision of a widow or widower who wants to remarry.

"Say there's a woman who's a widow and involved with another man," says Garrett. "She has her deceased husband's benefits and the man has his own. Together they have enough to live on comfortably.

"But if they get married, her Social Security goes away and she would qualify for half of her new husband's benefits. That could be several hundred dollars less a month, and that amount could make a big difference."

Hobbs agrees. "If your new spouse doesn't have the same work history as your old spouse, you may have traded off a good benefit," she says.

Contact your local Social Security Administration office and have them run some numbers for your personal situation. The calculations could help you decide whether you want to walk down the aisle.

 
 
Next: Almost every taxpayer knows about the marriage tax penalty
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 RESOURCES
Unmarried couples, special considerations
Love, honor and pay the marriage tax
Smart financial moves for newlyweds
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