The client arrived in Deb Neiman's office too late - her much-wealthier partner had already died. The deceased woman didn't have a will and hadn't named her partner as a beneficiary on many of her IRAs. There was no documentation of the client's contributions to the costs of the couple's shared home. "Her standard of living for retirement looked bleak," says Neiman, principal of Neiman & Associates Financial Services in Arlington, Mass., and co-author of Money Without Matrimony: The Unmarried Couple's Guide to Financial Security.

Two people may share a home, children and bank accounts, and yet have the same legal status as strangers. Planners are seeing more couples, both straight and gay, whose financial lives are intertwined without the benefit of full legal protection. As people live longer, many older couples remain unwed - to avoid money conflicts with stepchildren or to keep Social Security and pension benefits linked to former marriages.

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