• August 21, 2014

Same-sex couples face additional hurdles

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Posted: Sunday, July 8, 2012 12:00 pm

Same-sex, bisexual and transgender couples — and individuals — often face significant financial hurdles compared to their heterosexual counterparts. According to Chris Kollaja, a certified public accountant and partner at A.L. Nella & Company in San Francisco, LGBT couples often incur higher costs for everything from income taxes to employee benefits to adoptions because of prevailing laws and tax regulations.

In states where gay marriage is not legal, same-sex couples must file separate income tax returns, as with unmarried heterosexual couples. Where it is legal, if they want to file a joint state return they must each file an individual federal return and then complete a "mock" joint federal return and use that data to calculate their joint state return.

Company-provided domestic partner benefits are considered imputed income by the IRS and added to the employee's taxable income. Also, whereas opposite-sex married couples can use pretax dollars to pay for medical insurance premiums, domestic partners cannot.

Heterosexual spouses can receive up to 50 percent of their spouse's Social Security benefits if he or she is still alive, can collect their dead spouse's benefit if it's higher than their own, and receive a $255 lump-sum spousal death benefit. None of these benefits apply to same-sex spouses.

Heterosexual married couples can contribute up to $5,000 a year to a spousal IRA for a non-working spouse; same-sex couples cannot.

If one spouse in a heterosexual marriage enters a nursing home and applies for Medicaid, the other may continue living in their home without impacting Medicaid eligibility. However, if an LGBT couple owns a home and one applies for Medicaid, the other must buy out the sick partner's share in order to remain in their home.

Heterosexual married couples can transfer unlimited assets to each other without paying federal estate taxes. Everyone else, including married same-sex couples, must pay taxes on estates that exceed $5.12 million.

Despite last year's repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," veteran's benefits based on marital status remain unavailable to same-sex military spouses including: military hospital visitation rights; survivor benefits; increased compensation to spouses of disabled veterans; Veterans Administration Home Loan eligibility for surviving spouses; and burial together in military cemeteries.

"The most important takeaway is that you can't take planning for granted," said Kollaja. "It's critical to establish your wishes through proper documentation."

He offers these tips:

Inventory all your assets and make sure everything is clearly titled and registered with the county.

Make sure your will, trust, durable power of attorney and other legal documents spell out how you want your assets distributed and whom you want to make your medical and financial decisions; otherwise the courts may designate someone instead.

Designate the proper beneficiaries for all insurance policies, retirement plans and investment accounts.

Buy adequate health, property and casualty insurance. If you're married or in a registered domestic partnership, you could be held liable for your partner's accident.

Because many mutual retirement benefits are not available to GLBT couples, plan your retirement for two single people. Having your own long-term care insurance is particularly important.

"Bottom line, make sure you have a trust or living will," says Kollaja. "Otherwise, you'll be subject to the state's probate laws, which could determine very different outcomes than what you would have wished."

Jason Alderman directs Visa's financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at PracticalMoney.

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