Although to some marriage is nothing more than a “piece of paper,” the formal ceremony does afford some rights and benefits you can’t get otherwise.
In general, society treats the spouse as the most privileged party, more so even than mom, dad or the kids. This is an important factor when it comes to making medical decisions or receiving public assistance benefits on behalf of your spouse, or rights that would otherwise require a power of attorney or similar legal document.
Social Security, disability and medicare benefits can all be paid to a spouse as can veteran and military benefits. Those with insurance plans through an employer can normally add a spouse to the plan, a benefit that is not offered to unmarried couples. Most employers also extend bereavement leave to close relatives of your spouse and allow family leave to care for your spouse in the event they become ill or disabled.
Marriage also gives you the right to sue on behalf of your spouse and gives you visiting rights if your spouse is in jail or the intensive care unit at a hospital. You cannot be called to testify against your spouse as most states have laws protecting your conversations as privileged.
If you do divorce, you are automatically entitled to a share in the community property, barring of course, any prenuptial or postnuptial agreement. Even in the event that there is a “prenup” or “postnup” in place, most states still treat alimony (also called spousal support) as a separate issue – meaning it can’t be waived in a prenup.
The spouse has the right to make funeral and burial arrangements, consent to any after-death procedures and grant or refuse any bestowments to friends and family members, assuming they do not conflict with a legal will.
A married couple can also file tax returns jointly and are given the ability to create family partnerships to address business income. In addition, self-employed individuals can extend investing opportunities to their spouse through an individual 401(k), a benefit not afforded to unmarried couples or registered domestic partnerships.