Unearned Privilege: 1,000+ Laws Benefit Only Married People

Here are some of the 1,000+ official benefits people get from marriage.

Posted Apr 02, 2018

When people get married in the U.S., they become officially special. With their marriage certificate in hand, they automatically qualify for the benefits and protections of more than 1,000 laws—and that’s just counting the ones at the federal level.

People who marry do not have to do anything to earn that special treatment denied to people who are not married. They do not have to have a good marriage or a faithful marriage or a loving marriage. They do not have to have kids. They do not need to be new to marriage; they get access to the outpouring of protections regardless of whether their marriage is their first or their twenty-first.

I have mentioned the 1,000+ federal laws many times over the 10 years I have been blogging here at Psychology Today. I just realized that I never offered PT readers a list of some of the most important examples. I did do that for one of my monthly columns for Unmarried Equality, back in 2015 when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage with its Obergefell v. Hodges decision. The list of laws was relevant in that context because gaining access to those advantages was one of the important goals of those who worked so hard to make marriage equality a reality.

With thanks to Unmarried Equality for their permission to adapt what I wrote for them, here is a sampling of some of the federal laws that benefit and protect only people who are officially married:

Economic:

Access to a partner's Social Security benefits

The right to inherit property even if your spouse dies without a will

Tax breaks on estate taxes

Tax breaks on inheritance taxes

Exemptions from penalties on IRAs that unmarried people pay

Spouses can give each other huge monetary gifts ($14,000 a year, as of 2017) without paying taxes, and together, they can give twice that amount to a recipient and the recipient won't have to pay taxes

Income tax breaks (for married couples filing jointly compared to solo single people)

Worker's compensation benefits

Relevant to children:

Married couples can jointly adopt children

They have claims to custody

Health-related:

Greater access to health insurance

Hospital visitation rights

Authority to make medical decisions

Others:

Next-of-kinship rights

Immigration rights

Survivors' rights and benefits

Can get listed on a spouse's death certificate

The privilege of not having to testify against your spouse in criminal cases

The privilege of having your communications with your spouse protected in criminal and civil cases

(If you are curious about some of the more obscure laws favoring married people, you can find a discussion here.)

How much do you think the economic discrimination can cost a single person over the course of a lifetime? Tell yourself your answer first, then check out the Atlantic article by Lisa Arnold and Christina Campbell, “The high price of being single in America.” Hint: It is a huge number.

The unearned privileges accorded to married people go far beyond what they get from the federal government. Married couples are also gifted with social, cultural, political, personal, and interpersonal advantages just because they are married. Unmarried couples get in on some of this action, too. My colleagues and I described some of those privileges in this article and in this checklist. (For a version adapted to tax season, see “If you are single, every day is tax day.”)

Tellingly, the SCOTUS ruling that extended the 1,000+ benefits and protections to same-sex couples was itself matrimaniacal. In the process of extolling married people, it shamed singles.

Fairness for Single People: What Would That Look Like?

What would it mean to let people who are not married in on the treasure trove of rights, benefits, and protects now available to any two adults who marry? In the outpouring of commentary inspired by the Obergefell decision, many examples were offered. I'll share some of those, then describe a more sweeping and radical possibility.

Unmarried people have many different kinds of people in their lives they consider to be important. The philosopher Elizabeth Brake suggested that the State should recognize relationships such as "Two single female friends [who] cohabit, raising children together" or "elderly friends [who] cohabit."

Clare Chambers, also a philosopher, believes we should think about extending rights to "unmarried cohabitants, property-holders, parents, carers, dependents, people who wish to designate each other next-of-kin."

Writing in the Guardian, Hugh Ryan asked, "Why shouldn't two elderly siblings, who care for one another in a long-term way, receive financial incentives to keep doing so? Or – as in my case – three men who love each other very much?"

English Professor Michael Cobb, author of Single: Arguments for the Uncoupled, raised these questions in his op-ed in the New York Times: "Why can't I put a good friend on my health care plan? Why can't my neighbor and I file our taxes together so we could save some money, as my parents do? If I fail to make a will, why is it unlikely a dear friend would inherit my estate?"

A year after the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, I looked for signs of progress and described my findings in  in the Washington Post. The headline is an apt summary: “Singles have fewer benefits than married people – but are slowly gaining more.”

Beyond Piecemeal Approaches: Let Marriage Be Sacred and Free

Piecemeal approaches present lots of challenges. Clare Chambers articulated some of the significant ones when she asked, "Would rights and duties be tied to formal agreement, to length of relationship, to function, to finances?"

A simple, powerful alternative is to let marriage be sacred and free. The free part would mean that couples would be free of all government participation in their marriages – no special benefits or protections or rights or duties would be set forth in the laws of the nation or the states. The sacred part is that marriage could still be a religious ritual or rite.

Two days after the Supreme Court ruling, Rand Paul published an opinion piece in Time magazine under the provocative title, "Government Should Get Out of the Marriage Business." (Oddly, the same media that is so enamored of controversy, especially in Presidential politics, mostly just ignored it.)

In that sentiment, Paul is joined by a growing number of other voices. In 2009, Rachel Buddeberg and I looked for advocates of that sort of position, and our non-exhaustive search turned up several dozen. By now, there are many more.

As we noted when introducing the various statements:

"The people (and groups) we have quoted have cast their arguments in terms of getting beyond marriage or conjugality, or privatizing marriage, or abolishing marriage, or maintaining the separation of church and state. The authors include libertarians, liberals, and conservatives; people from various religious perspectives; gay rights activists and people hostile toward the GLBT community; people taking a marketplace perspective as their starting point and others starting from a concern with basic human dignities and needs."

Here's just one example, from Michael Kinsley's "Abolish Marriage," published in Slate in 2003:

"End the institution of government-sanctioned marriage [...] Privatize marriage [...] Let churches and other religious institutions continue to offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want. Let each organization decide for itself what kinds of couples it wants to offer marriage to. Let couples celebrate their union in any way they choose and consider themselves married whenever they want. Let others be free to consider them not married, under rules these others may prefer. And, yes, if three people want to get married, or one person wants to marry herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony and declare them married, let ‘em. If you and your government aren't implicated, what do you care?"

I like the sweeping approach myself, but I'll take my civil rights victories where I can get them.

Singlism Happens to Every Single Person

Over the many years that I have been studying the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people that I call singlism, I have heard from single people who claim that they have never experienced singlism. That’s not possible. In the U.S., every single person has experienced singlism, because it is written right into the laws of the land.