When it comes to financial planning, married couples enjoy certain advantages. For example, if they divorce and have not entered into a prenuptial agreement, state law provides for an equitable division of their assets. Similarly, if one spouse dies without a will, state law typically says that the surviving spouse inherits a portion of the assets.

Despite these protections, married couples should have a plan to ensure that their wishes are carried out. But planning is critical for unmarried couples, who may face devastating consequences if they split up — or if one person dies — without a plan in place. If you and your partner are unmarried, here are some issues to consider:

TAX-PLANNING OPPORTUNITIES

Married couples generally file joint income tax returns, which can be an advantage or disadvantage. Single-income families and families in which one spouse earns significantly more than the other generally pay less tax by filing jointly. However, spouses with similar incomes — especially high earners — may pay higher taxes than similarly situated unmarried couples.

Unmarried couples also may have some tax-planning opportunities that are unavailable to married couples. For example, if there is a substantial disparity in partners' incomes, having the higher earning partner pay deductible expenses (such as mortgage payments or charitable contributions) may be preferable. This is because those deductions usually are more valuable on the higher earner's tax return. It may also be possible to reduce taxes by titling investments or other income-producing assets in the lower earner's name. Note, however, that gifts between unmarried individuals are reportable and use up gift tax exemptions.

BREAKUP PROTECTION

Without the protection of divorce laws, you should consider signing a cohabitation or domestic partnership agreement to provide for the division of assets in the event you split up. This is especially important if assets are titled in the name of one partner or the other for tax-planning purposes.

Joint ownership may also be an option for certain assets, such as real estate and bank or brokerage accounts. However, keep in mind that this type of ownership may raise gift or income tax issues. In such circumstances, talk to your tax advisor.

RETIREMENT PLANNING

When planning for retirement, keep in mind that unmarried couples often are at a disadvantage when it comes to government and employee benefits. Spouses who have been married for at least ten years, for example, can collect Social Security benefits based on their spouse's (or ex-spouse's) work history. This can be a big advantage for spouses who leave the workforce for a time to raise children. Additionally, if one spouse dies, the surviving spouse and other family members may be entitled to Social Security survivor benefits.

Unmarried partners are not entitled to these benefits. However, some employers provide pension plan survivor's benefits to unmarried partners of deceased employees. Therefore, it is important to do your research and learn which retirement benefits will and will not be available. You may need to provide other savings or life insurance to make up for any shortfalls.

Related Read: Spouses Benefit From Social Security Too

ESTATE PLANNING

When married couples neglect to prepare an estate plan, state law provides one for them. Unmarried couples have no such backup plan. So unless each of you carefully spell out how you wish to distribute assets, the surviving partner could be left with none of the assets in the other's name. Take advantage of tools such as wills and trusts, strategic titling of property (for example, joint ownership), and proper beneficiary designations in retirement accounts and life insurance policies.

You also need to prepare advance health care directives and financial powers of attorney if you want your partner to have the authority to make health care decisions or manage your finances if you become incapacitated. Legally, unmarried partners are considered unrelated, so absent these documents they have little or no right to participate in health care and end-of-life decisions.

Related Read: A Trust Can Be A Mighty Financial Fortress

PUT IT IN WRITING

Unmarried couples can achieve many of the same financial and estate planning objectives as married couples. But ensuring that your wishes are carried out requires careful planning — with the assistance of financial and legal professionals — and thorough documentation. If you do not have a plan in place, contact your advisor.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.