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U.S. News Archive
January 28 - January 31 2001



This page contains news for the period January 28, 2001 through January 31, 2001.  

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 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 without marrying.

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 school.

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." The
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 writes.

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 adult children.

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 cohabiting couples.

On their Web site, Solot and Miller contend that studies showing that these couples are more likely to divorce after getting married are misleading.

"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 commitment."

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 divorce.

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 people.

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 child’s 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 it.

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 this.

"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 personality.

"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 divorces

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 enacted.

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 industry."

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 suit.

"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, disagrees.

"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 marriage."

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 said.


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 about.

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 public accountant.

She said divorcing couples should keep several things in mind:

The house

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.

The debts

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 said.

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.

The credits

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 education expenses.

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.

Stock options

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 advisers.

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.

Innocent spouse

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" rules.

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.


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