The marriage institution may be in tatters, but people who do tie the knot still stand to gain from it. Couples who collaborate on money matters can benefit from a wide range of financial rewards that, by many estimates, can double their lifetime wealth.
Do you need to be married to get the benefits? It helps, but single people can also learn to reach financial bliss by looking at how the "marriage effect" works.
"Just the act of getting married isn't going to automatically, magically make your financial life that much better than it was before. But if you go the extra length by working together as a couple, you will realize a big benefit," says Derek Gabrielsen, a wealth advisor with Strategic Wealth Partners in Seven Hills, Ohio.
To be sure, there is luck involved, and not everyone is lucky in love. More than 70 percent of people will be married at some point in their lives, according to the Pew Research Center. The fact that only half of Americans remain married now shows the impact of divorce, which destroys wealth nearly as much as stable marriages tend to create it.
Nonetheless, financial experts see the survival of marriage as a positive: On average, married people each generate 4 percent more wealth per year than singles, according to a much-cited study by researcher Jay Zagorsky at Ohio State University's Center for Human Resource Research. Over time, that means married people accumulate twice the wealth of singles, on average, and couples end up with four times the combined wealth of a single person.
The importance of such a "marriage effect" was illustrated dramatically this year when the Supreme Court made its landmark same-sex marriage ruling. That case upheld the long-standing principle that a spouse plays a critical role in creating household wealth and has a unique claim in the handling of an estate. Widowed Edith Windsor was refunded a $360,000 estate tax that she would have received immediately if her spouse had been male.
That bedrock of common law and legal codes has long been recognized in much of the world for married couples. But couples reap the benefits of married life long before the estate goes into probate.
So what are the biggest benefits that marriage bestows? The benefits are not, as many assume, primarily a product of the tax code. The income-tax advantage that married couples once enjoyed has disappeared, and financial advisors now talk of a "marriage penalty": Couples can pay a higher rate in their combined filings than singles because their combined income often pushes them into a higher tax bracket. Even the aforementioned estate tax break is something that is available to single people, even though married couples simply have more flexibility in how they use it for each other when they pass away.
The benefits of marriage aren't all about sharing expenses, either. That helps, of course, especially when it comes to combining resources to buy a home, open a checking account or shopping two-for-one sales. But singles can also find ways to make expenses go further.
The most important advantages are things everyone can do. That's because the biggest marriage effect is that couples tend to stay focused on life goals more than singles.
Money grows in a stable environment. When couples start dating seriously, they begin sharing their life hopes and ambitions, which become central to the relationship. For some, those discussions start on the first date.
"You talk about building a life together – buying a home, having children, their college education and how you will protect each other's health care and retirement," says Diane Pearson, personal chief financial officer of Legend Financial Advisors Inc. "Financial planning might not be romantic, but there is some peace of mind in sharing the same goals."
[Read: Retirement Savings Tips for Couples.]
Simply talking things over and putting those words into a plan can have a profound impact on wealth. A 2013 HSBC survey reports that people saved 49 percent more if they had a financial plan to save money. The survey concluded that it was "a cause and effect relationship." It also said the results were not simply a matter of having more resources to start with but of using them wisely.
Married couples also tend to plan more, and accumulate for the long term. The commitment of marriage usually means people are also committed to goals from the start, whether it's conscious or not. The Zagorsky study said the commitment of married couples added up to 4 percent more wealth each year from a variety of sources such as homeownership and investing their savings. Once married, young people tend to start saving right away. (It's worth noting that singles may be catching up: Recent surveys have shown a surge in singles contributing to workplace savings plans at much higher rates, and that is likely to narrow the marriage wealth gap over time. Changes in workplace savings plan, such as the "opt-out" requirement that enrolls people automatically unless they decide otherwise, have led to a sharp rise in savings over the past two years.)
Experts also note that gender differences can make married couples less likely to veer too far in either direction on the risk-taking spectrum. Men and women tend to look at money matters differently, and that makes them natural diversifiers, which is a critical component of wealth accumulation.
It's true that men tend to be more confident with investing – often too much so – and they take more risks. Women tend to be more conservative. A study of affluent women released this week by Wells Fargo found that women overwhelmingly define themselves as more thrifty than their spouses.
"We found that women are more likely to define success in terms of peace of mind, and men define it as achievement in their careers," says Karen Wimbich, head of retirement for Wells Fargo. Those traits have a natural balancing effect, but a solid financial plan can help anyone, single or married, learn how to diversify their holdings.
But more than gender roles, creating a stable household creates some of the largest advantages. "If you look at the history behind a lot of legislation and tax benefits, they have always been drafted to encourage marriage, and people making commitments to marriage. It's been historically that case that forming a nuclear family has been financially encouraged," says Alex Popovich, a wealth advisor at JP Morgan Private Bank and an expert on financial issues in same-sex marriages.
The bottom line: Money goes to two places. It gravitates to where it can make more money or to where there is a safe harbor. A stable married couple can provide both, but so can a single person who plans for the future.