A large number of same-sex couples will be entering retirement in the next few years, and many of them will face great challenges in planning for their financial futures. The majority of these problems will stem from their unmarried status. Unmarried couples are not guaranteed the automatic legal protections that take effect when one member of a married couple dies. In addition, unmarried couples lack many of the other advantages in planning for financial security in their retirement; these are advantages that most couples take for granted.
Same-sex couples are at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving 401(k) benefits. Same-sex surviving spouses, unlike the surviving spouse in a married union, cannot directly receive the balance of their deceased spouse’s 401(k) plans. Because they must begin making withdrawals on the balance right away, they face a higher tax rate than their married counterparts and experience the loss of accruing interest. In addition, a married person can transfer his or her deceased spouse’s 401(k) funds into an IRA without paying taxes, yet a gay or lesbian who inherits 401(k) funds may end up paying up to 70 percent of those funds in taxes and penalties.
Pension benefits also do not apply to same-sex couples in that way that they apply to married couples. If a worker passes away, most pension plans will pay survivor benefits solely to a legal spouse of the participant. As such, gay and lesbian partners are excluded from these pension benefits. Not receiving these benefits could cause significant financial problems for surviving same-sex spouses.
In order to better plan for their future, same-sex couples should consult with an attorney who specializes in estate planning.