Archive for Wednesday, September 25, 2002

Laws have anti-marriage bias

September 25, 2002


— In a nation that prides itself on family values, it seems as though we are doing just about everything possible to discourage marriage.

First on the list is the inexcusable marriage-tax penalty that causes married couples to pay more to the IRS than each of the partners would pay if they were single. This was an unintended consequence of years of tax tinkering by our elected officials and now, though our senators and representatives acknowledge the problem, they claim that rectifying it would bust the budget. This, of course, is nonsense because they could simply perform additional tinkering that raises other rates to lower married rates.

Next are the divorce laws. They vary dramatically from state to state, raising the question of whether they are generally too lenient or too complex. It is well known that approximately 50 percent of marriages in America end in divorce. Would there be more divorces if the laws made divorce easier, or would there be more marriages?

Cohabitation was once frowned upon, but is now commonplace. With the social stigma removed, people know they can live with their "significant other" before making the marriage commitment. And this is where the tax laws and divorce laws kick in. Ending a non-marital relationship requires nothing more than a moving van. Ending a marriage requires attorneys, waiting periods, prolonged trauma and divorce settlements.

The last of these is being amply displayed in the messy divorce between former General Electric Chairman Jack Welch and his wife, who is demanding more than $365,000 per month in the settlement. This is why pre-nuptial agreements come into play, but most couples do not go this route because they do not wish to contemplate divorce when they marry, and because they do not want to spend the money on attorneys.

In short, marriage in America can be expensive going in, expensive going on (because of taxes), and very expensive going out. So the incentive to cohabit is significant. And where cohabitation may once have been chosen as a temporary lifestyle preliminary to making a lifetime commitment, it is increasingly being chosen as a more permanent living arrangement. This is especially true for childless couples. There is still a social stigma about having children out of wedlock. And even this stigma will vanish unless we change the anti-marriage biases of our laws.

Tax laws can be changed now and should be. Divorce laws as they relate to divorce settlements should be changed to incorporate the basic concepts of pre-nuptial agreements, which is to say that the laws should state that a marriage partner may not lay claim to what the other partner has financially brought into and contributes during the marriage. The problem is that such a law would discriminate against the housewife or househusband. This could be resolved with a formula that allocates a percentage to the non-income earning partner. At least a formula would create uniformity and reduce legal bills.

And finally comes the issue of divorce law complexity. Marriage should not be a prison. To make it so is to disincentivize couples from entering into it. Laws should written to encourage couples to reconcile, usually through counseling, but otherwise, long time constraints and other roadblocks should be removed.

The current concept of making divorce expensive and difficult has only succeeded in increasing the incidence and duration of cohabitation.

Prediction: The marriage-tax penalty will be eliminated, but little else will be done to reduce legal fees and trauma when marriages go awry.

Political correspondent Eleanor Clift contributed to this column.

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