Cohabitating Couples, Straight or Gay, Need to Know Rights

Now that the U.S. Census Bureau has found that married households are no longer the nation’s preferred living arrangement, the definition of “family-friendly” policies may change for a growing number of companies.

For the first time, married couples make up a minority of the nation’s households, at 49.8 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey. Marriage did not play a part in 50.2 percent of roughly 111 million American family households.

Single women headed 14 million households and single men headed 5 million. A category called “nonfamily households,” which includes gay or heterosexual couples living together, amounted to 37 million. (A wealth of information about the American Community Survey can be found at www.census.gov/acs/www/index.html

The figures show what some companies already recognize: that encouraging diversity in the workplace is good for business, and that diversity should also extend to sexual orientation.

Couples who live together, gay or straight, must fully understand their rights and benefits and get everything in writing, financial advisers say. About 1,049 federal laws benefit those who tie the knot, said Todd G. Sears, a senior financial adviser who founded the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) financial-services team at Merrill Lynch & Co. “Any rights you would want to have as a married couple, you need to re-create in a legal document,” he told the Associated Press.

Domestic partnerships or civil unions are recognized by some states —California, Vermont, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maine and Hawaii — and gay marriage is allowed in Massachusetts, but you still remain strangers in the eyes of the federal government, he said.

The paperwork involved is immense. Consider wills and/or revocable living trust to avoid the risk of having assets pass to family members instead of our partner. Think about an advance health-care directive to ensure your partner can make medical decisions on your behalf, or even visit you. (Visitation can be denied to anyone who is not a spouse or family member.) Other documents include a durable power of attorney for finances, a domestic partner agreement or a parenting agreement, Sears said.

If you work for a company that extends health insurance benefits to domestic partners, you have additional options. This gay-friendly corporate policy is becoming increasingly common.

The Human Rights Campaign tracks such policies at U.S. companies and gives perfect scores to those that offer domestic partners health and other wellness benefits, enact non-discrimination policies for sexual orientation and gender identity, and support resource groups and events.

"All of these things are motivated by what is good for business," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. "I hear from corporate leaders every week, that they went after a very sought-after person, and they hear the question of whether they have domestic partner benefits. For straight applicants, it's a measure of the corporate culture."

Ernst and Young is the first from the accounting industry to make the list. Chip Faught, associate director for national tax at Ernst and Young, and his partner Nathan Monell, used the company's financial assistance to help bring their adopted son and daughter from Guatemala in late May of last year. Faught received $5,000 per child in assistance and company policies, he said, gave him the flexibility to complete the adoption process.

Mike Syers, a partner in the firm who helped found bEYond, the firm's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employee group, told the AP: "We have companies realizing they really can't afford to exclude anyone. Younger people are coming out of college and are out and open in their public lives, they're not going to go back into the closet to begin their professional careers."

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