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Retirement advice for gay couples

By Jennie L. Phipps ·
Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Posted: 3 pm ET

Gay couples who say "I do" in New York and the five other states that have legalized same-sex marriage should also quickly consider retirement planning, because the financial implications of a same-sex partnership are more complex than they are for conventional marriages.

Anna Pfaehler, a CFP with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Scarsdale, N.Y., offers this advice:

Sign the beneficiary forms. Naming beneficiaries for retirement and other accounts is especially important for same-sex couples where the legal protections for surviving spouses are hazy at best.

Understand your Social Security The federal government doesn't recognize same-sex marriages, so same-sex couples don't have the advantage that conventional married or even divorced couples have of being able to claim half or -- in the case of a death -- all of the deceased spouse's Social Security.

Get your paperwork in order. Prepare and carry advance health care directives when you travel. Also, execute a power of attorney for each other. If one of you is hospitalized in a state that doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, you could be locked out of the hospital room and unable to make critical decisions on behalf of your spouse.

Make a will. States that allow same-sex marriages or civil unions often have intestate rights for surviving partners, allowing some or all of the deceased partner's property to pass to the surviving partner without a will. But if you die without a will elsewhere, your partner may not be provided for by the state's intestate laws, Pfaehler says. Your assets will instead pass to your biological family based on that state's laws.

Consider estate taxes. In New York, for instance, state estate taxes kick in at $1 million, but married couples can pass their property to a surviving spouse tax-free. Other states treat estate taxes differently. The federal spousal exemption isn't available for gay couples.

File state taxes jointly. California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon and Vermont allow legally sanctioned same-sex couples to file joint income tax returns. Such couples in New York, Delaware, Hawaii and Illinois will have that option starting with their 2011 returns. Most couples will cut their taxes by filing jointly, Pfaehler says. Since same sex-couples can't file joint federal returns, they have to decide whether it's worth the extra complexity of filing a federal return separately, but preparing a second version jointly, so they can use that information to file the state form.

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