What legal benefits do married couples enjoy in United States, and what is the rationale for those benefits?

  • If it's economic, then why aren't those benefits extended to any set of room-mates?
  • If it's custody-related why aren't those benefits extended to unmarried parents?
  • 6
    The answer to "why" aren't always stated, and aren't always rational.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 16:50

2 Answers 2


This article details many of the 1,138 documented rights and responsibilities associated with marriage in the United States according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). They run the spectrum from tax incentives, medical decision making and benefits, entitlement program (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare) eligibility, to family services like adoption and survivor benefits.

As for the rationale, as @DVK notes, there is a wide range that have evolved over time and not all of them are all that rational. However, there is a very good discussion of the various reasons for championing marriage in the law found here.

  • 1
    Are medical visitation benefits a matter of Government mandate, or is it just a common hospital policy?
    – JohnFx
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 20:03
  • @JohnFx this is a good point. The government only mandates that the hospital have a policy, but does not define the policy for them. However, hospitals accepting medicare/medicaid money from the government have additional limits. I have edited my answer to include a better example...medical decision making...which is limited by statute. Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 20:13
  • 1
    This answer could be fleshed out a bit more. A bit more of a discussion of big, main benefits, along with big, main reasons for 'why' would make the answer more resilient to link rot.
    – user171
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 20:17
  • 2
    And that Wiki article is a great illustration of everything that is wrong with Western Democracies. A whole lotta rights. 4 phony "responsibilities" which are more accurately described as "limitations when the rights don't apply". One actual responsibility that is in practice applied very unfairly (alimony/Child support). And that's it with responsibilities.
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 23:38
  • @MichaelKingsmill, any reason why you went with the 1138 number from the GAO report that notes that it was only listing, "those laws in the USC which marital status is a factor, even though some of these laws may not directly create benefits, rights, or privileges." Do you think the 1138 is an accurate estimate?
    – user1873
    Commented Nov 5, 2013 at 17:38

First, the Government Accountability Office report should not be used to show an "association" with rights and benefits of marriage. That report only shows that marriage status is a factor in 1049 places in the United States Code (USC) or the updated GAO report that finds 1138 instances in the USC. The report was commissioned in response to the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.

In connection with the enactment of the Defense of Marriage Act, you asked us, in your September 5, 1996, letter, to identify federal laws in which benefits, rights, and privileges are contingent on marital status. Your staff agreed that we should identify more generally all those laws in the United States Code in which marital status is a factor, even though some of these laws may not directly create benefits, rights, or privileges.

The report also warns against using it to draw conclusions that it prohibits people in same-sex marriages, people in same-sex civil unions, or single people from enjoying benefits and rights available to people in opposite-sex marriages under federal law.

Finally, no conclusions can be drawn, from our identification of a law as one in which marital status is a factor, concerning the effect of the law on married people versus single people. A particular law may create either advantages or disadvantages for those who are married, or may apply to both married and single people.

As far as your questions go:

if it's economic, than why aren't those benefits extended to any set of roommates?

Because, that is the way the law was written. In general, we have many laws that understand the strong bonds between family members and recognize and promote families. Some laws would make little sense to extend to room-mates, for example the estate laws. Married persons usually share property jointly, mingle their funds, and share obligations. Married persons are allowed an unlimited exemption when transfering property upon death to their surviving spouse. This exemption doesn't affect many people, (you already can transfer $5 million to any individual), and isn't applicable to non-citizens. If the government extended the benefit to roommates, you could imagine the number of one month leases that would occur to take advantage of the tax loophole.

if it's custody-related why aren't those benefits extended to unmarried parents?

First off, unmarried parents do have benefits extends to them, even in cases that many people would object to. Legal guardians, parents being an example of one, are granted benefits and responsibilities to their children (and in many cases, even children which aren't theirs). Unmarried parents don't have a legally recognized relationship, and therefore don't have any of the legal benefits or responsibilities related to the children in a marriage.

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