| Wednesday, January 31, 2001
Cohabitation raises issues for unmarried couples
A story published today in the Arkansas Gazette discusses a
number of issues raised by the increasing number of unmarried couples who live together
The story begins by focusing on thirtysomethings
"Holly" and "Charles" who decided to make a drastic move. Literally.
The decision was to give up their separate homes and move into a third dwelling together,
without getting married.
"We were spending most of our time together
anyway," says Holly, a former Little Rock resident. "And it just seemed to make
sense that since we were together and we wanted to be together," it would be
advantageous to combine households. "It wasn't necessarily a ... financial
decision, but that certainly was a
motivation as well."
At the time, Holly and Charles, both of whom had been married
before, had no plans to marry each other. "I think that was something that we always
sort of thought about, but it wasn't part of a plan -- I mean it wasn't a stepping
stone," Holly says.
In fact, the couple didn't have much of a plan at all. They
did not discuss such logistics as who would do the housework or how expenses would be
divided. "It always sort of balanced out in the wash, I guess," Holly
The story says they were lucky because neither of them
received any criticism from parents and other relatives for their living arrangement. The
only negative feedback, Holly says, was from a conservative male friend of hers from high
Holly and Charles lived together for 21/2 years before they
decided to get married. "We were not going to start a family without being married --
period," Holly says. "It's just too confusing a situation for children."
couple exchanged vows shortly before relocating to another state in late 2000.
The story asks: Did living with Charles beforehand serve to
strengthen her marriage?
"I didn't have any unrealistic expectations," Holly
says. Some couples think that when they marry, "some switch is going to be turned on
and their life is going to be complete. ... I think I just had realistic expectations
about what happened after we got married."
The story says that Holly and Charles were one of an
ever-growing number of United States couples who decide to live together before, or in
lieu of, marriage. The reasons these couples combine households are varied. Some want to
live together as a trial period, to get to know each other better before tying the knot.
Some engaged couples live together while they save money and plan their wedding. Some
elderly couples will live together without marrying so as not to lose retirement or
pension benefits. Some couples fear divorce, having faced it before or having seen their
parents go through it. And some couples merely choose not to base their commitment to each
other on "a piece of paper."
According to a 1998 Census report, about 5.6 million
unmarried couples, same-sex and opposite-sex, live together in the United States. More
than one in three unmarried-couple households include children.
The number of Arkansans living together is relatively low.
Census information reveals that Arkansas has the second lowest percentage -- behind
Alabama -- of unmarried partners living together, same sex or different sex.
The majority of the states with the lowest percentages are
Southern or Midwestern states included in the country's Bible Belt. (Alaska has the
highest percentage, followed by Vermont.) In eight states, cohabiting is still illegal.
But, according to a Dec. 27 online article by Nick Marino of the Florida Times-Union in
Jacksonville, 3.1 million U.S. couples decide to live together in hopes of "marrying
for life." "Unfortunately, if you're like 2 million of those couples, you
fail," Marino adds.
However, from 1990 to 1997, the number of couples living
together increased 46 percent. At least half of those who marry lived together first, he
In a study in 2000, UCLA scholar Judith Seltzer found that
couples who lived together before marrying were more likely to separate or divorce than
couples who did not cohabit before their nuptials. Studies in 1992, 1994 and 1995 all came
to the same conclusion, according to Marino's story. He also cites a finding by
demographer and University of Michigan associate professor of sociology Pamela Smock:
About 44 percent of cohabiting couples who intend to marry do not.
About a million couples who live together have no marriage
plans. The story says that "Lana" and "Derek" are among them.
Both 49, they moved in together seven years ago for practical
reasons: Derek was planning a move to Little Rock but had no place to live. "I think
we would have done it anyway," Lana says. "That kind of maybe prompted it a
little faster than it would have."
Unlike Holly and Charles, this couple -- who also had been
seeing each other a year -- sat down and carefully discussed how money and household
duties would be handled. So far their system has worked well: They split everything 50-50.
With the exception of their financial arrangement, Lana says,
the issues that come up during their relationship are "mostly the same issues that
you have when you're married," such as how many visitors they will have and how long
those visitors will stay. This is an important issue for them because they both have young
The story says that the couple are in no hurry to get
married. One of the reasons, Lana says, is because "we have obligations to our kids
and those obligations really come first. And we have kids in different
circumstances." She emphasizes that her decision would be different if she were a
younger woman who was looking forward to having a family. "I would definitely want to
be married to have children. "But, at this stage there is no compelling reason to get
married. We have a strong commitment to each other."
Support exists for couples like Lana and Derek -- support in
the form of the Alternatives to Marriage Project.
Dorian Solot and her companion, Marshall Miller, are founders
of the Boston-based organization, which advocates greater understanding and acceptance of
On their Web site, Solot and Miller contend that studies
showing that these couples are more likely to divorce after getting married are
"As a group, many studies show that people who choose to
live together before they get married are less religious and are more open to divorce as
an acceptable solution if a relationship isn't working," they state. "The other
group, people who get married without living together first, tend to be much more
religious and more opposed to divorce. ...
"Living together does not ruin anyone's relationship.
These studies receive a great deal of publicity because conservative groups use them to
try to revive 'traditional' marriage."
Solot says she sometimes reminds people that commitment and
marriage are two different things. "They often go together, but it is certainly
possible to have one without the other -- a marriage with very little commitment or a very
committed unmarried couple," she says.
Cohabitation has support from some surprising sources, Solot adds. Alternatives to
Marriage Project is working on a report about Christianity and cohabitation.
"Many Christians do believe cohabitation is an
acceptable choice," she says. "The report will point out that Christianity
teaches love and understanding for others, and that many unmarried relationships share the
same core values as married relationships, such as love, mutual respect, integrity and
Contrary to the contention that religious couples are more
reluctant to consider ending a marriage, statistics show that divorce rates are high in
the Bible Belt. Among Christian denominations, Baptists are the most likely to
They are even more likely to divorce than atheists and
agnostics, according to a survey conducted and released in late 1999 by Barna Research
Group in Ventura, Calif. The group also found that 29 percent of all adult Baptists have
gone through a divorce. Among the Christian community, Baptists came in second only to
nondenominational Protestant churches (34 percent). And Arkansas held the third highest
divorce rate -- 6 per thousand -- behind only Nevada and Tennessee, The Associated Press
reported in December 1999.
It has been speculated that the statistics are a reflection
not only of the independence of Southern women, but of the fact that Baptist churches push
young people to get married rather than living together -- even if they're not really
ready to marry -- and that evangelical churches are not flexible enough to deal with
modern marriage problems.
Bill would allow unmarried couples to adopt children in New Hampshire
A story published today in the Union Leader reports that
state Rep. Ray Buckley, D-Manchester, told the House Children and Family Law
Committee that unmarried couples should be allowed to jointly adopt children. Buckley is
prime sponsor of House Bill 191, which would permit joint legal adoption by two unmarried
Buckley said the intent of the bill is to protect the rights
of both unmarried partners regarding custody of any children that might be members of
their households. Current law permits any individual, homosexual or heterosexual, to
adopt, but only married couples may adopt together, Buckley said.
Buckley posed as an example the dissolution of a relationship
in which one partner is the legal or adoptive parent and the other is not. He said the
non-adoptive parent could be excluded from a continuing relationship with the child even
though he or she may have been an active participant in the childs upbringing.
Bradford Cook, representing the Roman Catholic Diocese of
Manchester, said the diocese opposes the bill. The diocese believes that the
strongest and best environment for raising children is the two-parent, marriage-based
family, Cook said.
Tuesday, January 30, 2001
Bill to repeal sodomy bill pending in Texas
A story published today in Planet Out reports that Texas is
among other states that will be considering sodomy repeal measures this year, one
introduced by Representative Debra Danburg (D-Houston) and one by openly gay
Representative Glen Maxey (D-Austin), HB 389.
Under Texas law, consenting sexual conduct between two men or
two women, even in private, is an infraction subject to a fine.
Danburg expects the bill to make it out of the
now-majority-Democrat House criminal jurisprudence committee where it failed last year.
But the Republican Party of Texas' platform included a public rebuke for two Republican
judges on a three-judge state appellate panel who found the law unconstitutional.
The full bench of the 14th Court of Appeals will be reviewing their decision, after which
an appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is expected.
Columnist focuses on becoming single again, after the split
A column published today in the Detroit News says there are
many reasons why divorce recovery can be a slow and painful process: there's the plummet
in your self-confidence after being rejected by a longtime partner; there's the loneliness
and the feeling of not being whole without somebody to share your life.
The author, Jeff Cottri, notes that what could be more
painful than the loss, however, is the fear of being single. It's scary to start over by
yourself after depending on your marriage for so long. You may have merged your identity
so closely with your spouse's -- defining yourself as half of a couple, not as an
individual -- that you can't imagine continuing on your own.
Reinventing yourself as a single person will be challenging,
but through patience and positive thinking, you'll do it, and the rewards will be worth
Therapists Robert Alberti and Bruce Fisher, in their book,
Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends (Impact Publishers, 2000; $14.95), claim
"singleness has become an acceptable alternative in our society. A generation or two
ago, a single person was looked upon in the community as somewhat weird, one who just did
not quite make it to the altar."
Cottri says that singleness can be a productive and happy
experience if you consciously choose to think of it that way. As Shakespeare said,
"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
Some people discover to their surprise that the single life
following divorce is full of new advantages. This is not to suggest that marriage is a bad
thing, or that single people are always happier than married people. But not all
relationships are completely beneficial: one that involves physical or psychological
abuse, or a power imbalance, or even boredom and monotonous routine, is repressive and
unhealthy for both people. Renewed singlehood is often a major turning point in lives like
"Learning to enjoy being single involves the ability to
experience everything through your own essence, instead of living vicariously through a
spouse or partner," writes Ernie Zelinski in his best-seller, The Joy of Not Being
Married (Visions International Publishing, 1995).
Zelinski suggests that the first step is learning to stand on
your own. This doesn't only mean taking care of yourself, it means understanding your own
"Making the most out of being single," says
Zelinski, "means taking advantage of the freedom to create a lifestyle that is
adventurous, exciting, and rewarding for you." And you can live this lifestyle
without any worry that a significant other might not approve.
Monday, January 29, 2001
No consensus in states to discourage
A story published today in the Lincoln Star Journal reports
that while it is easy to find politicians and civic leaders throughout the nation decrying
the prevalence and social cost of divorce, it is harder to find consensus about what, if
anything, policy makers should do in response.
An array of proposals has reached legislative hearing rooms; few of substance have been
No state has followed Florida's example in requiring a marriage-education curriculum for
public high school students. Only one state, Arizona, has joined pioneering Louisiana in
approving covenant marriages, in which
couples voluntarily impose limits on their ability to divorce.
Despite the setbacks, including rejection of covenant-marriage bills in more than 20
legislatures, supporters of the so-called Marriage Movement are encouraged.
"At least marriage is back on the agenda," said Alan Hawkins, a professor of
family sciences at Brigham Young University. "I find that amazing."
Hawkins promotes covenant marriage and several other proposals created to discourage
divorce, but he is not surprised at the wary reaction of many legislators.
"We're treading on very sensitive ground," he said. "We're just surfacing
from a generation of living in a culture of divorce, and questioning whether it was
everything we hoped it would be. It's a bigger step from questioning, and realizing there
are real problems, to saying we ought to do something about the problems."
The proponents of Louisiana's covenant-marriage law hoped they were sending a message to
the nation when they pushed their bill through to passage in 1997. It was hailed as the
first substantive move in two centuries to make divorce harder, rather than easier.
Covenant marriage gives couples the option of spurning no-fault divorce; they sign binding
contracts that require premarital counseling and permit divorce only in cases of abuse,
abandonment, adultery, imprisonment of a spouse or a lengthy separation.
So far, however, less than 5 percent of Louisiana couples are choosing covenant marriage.
And Arizona, the only other state to try covenant marriage, opted for a weaker law that
allows participating couples to divorce relatively easily if both spouses consent.
Tony Perkins, the state representative who sponsored Louisiana's law, admits the response
of other states has been discouraging. He said the proposal had failed in some seemingly
sympathetic legislatures - Texas and Oklahoma, for example - because of opposition by key
committee chairmen who were divorce lawyers.
Were covenant marriage to spread, Perkins said, "It would be a blow to the divorce
Perkins predicted at least a few other states eventually would try covenant marriage, and
he credited his bill with fueling a national discussion of marriage and divorce.
The story says that Mike Johnson, a Baton Rouge lawyer, and his wife, Kelly, entered a
covenant marriage in 1999. He has been trying since then to encourage friends to follow
"In my generation, all we've ever known is the no-fault scheme, and any deviation
from that seems like a radical move," said Johnson, 28. "We've all been jaded by
our parents' divorces.
"Because so few people have chosen covenant marriage in Louisiana, it seems like an
unpopular idea," he said. "It's not unpopular - it's just unknown. Once the
message is out there, a whole lot more people will choose it."
Joe Cook, director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union,
"It's a bad idea whose time should have never come," he said. "Fortunately,
it looks like it won't catch on."
The ACLU says the law infringes on the separation of church and state. Many of the bill's
staunchest backers were Christian conservatives, and the law offers a prominent role to
clergy in premarital counseling.
The ACLU also is concerned that women who enter covenant marriages might have difficulty
escaping from abusive relationships, even though the law specifies that domestic violence
is among the grounds for breaking the covenant.
"They're trying to come up with a quick fix to a complex problem," Cook said.
"If they want to help families, they can offer substance-abuse treatment, improve
public education, ensure a living wage. . . . You just can't legislate a good
Different tactics to curb divorce have been tried in other states, often unsuccessfully.
In Minnesota, Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed a bill last year that would have lowered marriage
license fees for couples who seek counseling before marrying.
"I do not believe that government has a role in marriage counseling," Ventura
Financial planning for divorce
A column, "Dollar Wise Divorce," published in the
Seattle Times today points out that more than 1 million marriages in the U.S. are expected
to end in divorce this year. Columnist Liz Pulliam Weston says that if your marriage is on
the rocks, there have been tax and financial developments in recent years you should know
Divorce can be financially devastating for both parties due to legal fees, the cost of
dividing assets and arrangements such as child support or spousal support.
Divorcing spouses who don't plan properly can end up with inadequate settlements, ruined
credit and tax problems, said Ginita Wall, a San Diego financial planner and certified
She said divorcing couples should keep several things in mind:
Homes became a more valuable asset in 1997, when Congress changed the tax law to allow
each person to exempt from taxes the first $250,000 of profit from a home sale. That means
couples could potentially get a $500,000 tax-free windfall on the sale of a home, often
making the house more valuable than a taxable or tax-deferred asset of equal size, such as
a retirement account, Wall said.
To take advantage of the profit exclusion, the seller generally has to have lived in the
house for at least two of the last five years. That would appear to limit options for
divorcing couples, who often want to delay a home sale until their children graduate from
school, Wall said.
Fortunately, there is an exception in the tax law just for couples who separate. If one
spouse is granted exclusive use of the home in a written separation agreement or divorce
order, the other spouse is considered still living there for home-sale tax purposes. One
spouse can move out, the sale can be delayed for several years and the ex-spouses can sell
for a tax-free profit of up to $500,000.
Divorce lawyers tell many tales of vengeful or irresponsible ex-spouses ruining their
former partner's credit. Although most divorce agreements divide up the debts, creditors
can go after either person for most debts incurred during marriage, regardless of what the
divorce order says.
There are smarter approaches than simply taking an ex's word that a debt will be paid,
Wall said. These include selling jointly owned property to pay the debt as part of the
settlement, or separating the debts in ways that don't leave creditors the option of going
after the other spouse.
The myriad of credit-card offers in recent years often makes dividing debt easier, Wall
Divorcing partners can apply for credit cards in their own name, using only their own
income to qualify, and then transfer balances from jointly owned cards or accounts to
those new cards.
The joint accounts should then be closed to prevent an ex-spouse from running up more debt
under both names, Wall said. A joint debt transferred to a card in one spouse's name
becomes the sole liability of that spouse, she said.
Children, too, are now worth more in a divorce, Wall said. Several valuable tax credits
are available for middle-income families with children.
Who gets what credit should be part of a divorce agreement.
Most of the tax credits go to the parent who takes the $2,800-per-person tax exemption for
the children. The custodial parent typically is the one who takes the exemption. But the
custodial parent can give the exemption to the other parent by signing a Form 8332. Thus,
an exemption can be an important negotiating point in a divorce, Wall says.
(There's a caveat. This option doesn't apply to the dependent-care tax credit,
offered to parents who work and pay for child care. A parent must have physical custody of
the child in order to take this credit.)
Other potentially valuable credits are the Hope and Lifetime Learning Credits for
If one parent can qualify to take the credit and the other can't because of too high an
income, a little cooperation can produce a better financial result for both, Wall said.
The higher-earning parent could funnel money for college tuition to the lower-earning
parent, for example, who could agree to pay for more of the child's books in return for
the ability to take the credit.
Wall said she has found that many couples are willing to work out such agreements, even if
they're fighting about other issues.
"What most people can agree on is that they've got great kids and they don't want to
hurt the kids in the divorce," Wall said.
Retirement plans are routinely divided in divorce, and transfers from one spouse's plan to
the other spouse's individual retirement account aren't taxable if made according to a
qualified domestic-relations order (known as a "quadro").
But the IRS has yet to make it clear whether, and how, divorce-related transfers of
employee stock options can be taxed, Wall said. Since stock options can be a large part of
some couples' wealth, the issue can be perplexing for divorcing couples and their
Not all companies allow employees to transfer their options to someone else, Wall noted.
If that is the case, the divorcing couple faces the task of guessing how much the options
might be worth when exercised, and perhaps dividing up other assets differently to account
for the stock options' potential value.
Anyone who signs a joint tax return is normally responsible for the tax and any extra
taxes, penalties or interest that might later result, such as from an audit.
Congress created two exceptions. A spouse who didn't know the other was hiding income or
misstating the facts can apply for relief under so-called "innocent spouse"
Separated or divorcing spouses may also opt for "separate liability," which can
limit their tax responsibility from a joint return. RIA, a tax-research company,
recommends opting for separate liability whenever a divorcing spouse believes the other
has falsified entries on a tax return or if the other spouse has few assets.
The rules for innocent spouse and separate liability are quite complex, and the IRS has
been flooded with applications for both since Congress changed the rules in 1997. The IRS
offers some information for taxpayers in Publication 971, which is available at IRS
offices and at its Web site, www.irs.gov.
But, the column warns, divorcing spouses who fear they may have a tax problem should
consult tax preparers who have experience in innocent-spouse applications.