Nontraditional families pay toll

Value Judgments

Your Money

July 04, 2004|By JANET KIDD STEWART

PAMELA Lukas and Chris Grijalva celebrated 20 years of unwedded bliss recently.

The couple in Irvine, Calif., decided long ago that while they loved each other deeply, they didn't want children and didn't want to co-mingle their finances. They don't share a joint checking account for household expenses. He takes care of the groceries, she pays the homeowners' insurance, and they both pay into the mortgage.

Though the social stigma of living together outside of marriage has faded, Lukas, 50, says the financial toll remains.

"I regret that I can't put him on my medical insurance at work," she said of Grijalva, a self-employed computer consultant who has to buy his own insurance. "I've been living with him longer than my co-workers have been married, and they're all on the company plan."

Still, the risk manager for a restaurant chain has done the math and continues to choose independence.

"I wanted to have my own financial base," she said.

At the same time, millions of same-sex couples are fighting a legislative war to be allowed to do exactly what Lukas and Grijalva have shunned all these years.

"The movement for gay marriage has been the biggest advertisement for marriage in years," said Arlene Skolnick, author of several books on how social and economic change affects family life. "It's simply equal access that they want."

The debate has huge ramifications as the relative financial advantages of the traditional family are being whittled away.

Think about it. Sure, there's the marriage tax penalty. But there have been plenty of big financial advantages to tying the knot.

Now more single people are buying homes and getting those juicy tax deductions - once largely the domain of the nuclear family. More employers are introducing domestic-partner benefits to attract better workers, even as some of their legal teams scramble to figure out what they'll do about new state laws defining marriage as only between a man and a woman.

In San Francisco, an Internet insurance company is marketing to nontraditional families. Esurance (www.esurance.com) will write car insurance policies that offer multicar discounts to any qualifying group of people who share a garage - whether they are lifelong partners, an elderly parent living with an adult child, or college roommates.

"Pressure has been building on [government] insurance departments to more and more accommodate nontraditional families," said Robin Olson, senior research analyst for the International Risk Management Institute Inc., an industry association. Olson said such policies could have potentially negative underwriting outcomes and lead to higher premiums for all clients.

Not so, company officials said. Esurance executives say they can offer attractive prices to nontraditional families because their research showed a big predictor of a profitable customer (defined as one who makes few claims and pays premiums on time) was the simple act of insuring more than one car.

Whether or not the larger insurance firms and bank underwriters begin to follow suit is the question.

"Companies will be forced to look at nontraditional families because that's where the business is," Lukas said.

For her part, Skolnick doesn't believe the decline of the financial advantage for traditional married couples will bring back the communes of a generation ago. "Marriage is going through a transition because of the cultural changes," she said. "But the old values will likely get assimilated. We tried communes, and they didn't work."

For a future column, I'm looking for readers willing to share their financial benchmarks. What was it like to surpass an older brother in salary? Do you constantly measure your standard of living against old college buddies? Send your thoughts to yourmoneytribune.com or write to Value Judgments, c/o Your Money, 435 N. Michigan Ave., 4th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611.

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