Some older couples who want social recognition for their love relationships are exchanging rings, throwing parties and holding wedding-type ceremonies, but they're stopping short of getting legally married to avoid complications with retirement funds, property and grown children.
"It was important for our friends to know we were committed to each other," recalled Dixie Reppe, 80, who wears a ring from her beau, Joe Pendergraft, 77, and refers to him as her fiance. "But the financial piece and the families — it's a whole lot more complicated. We decided to keep those things separate." The two live in adjoining apartments in Inverness Village in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Pendergraft bought her the ring after she visited him in Georgia. "He didn't want people to think I'd spent time with a strange man in Georgia," Reppe recalled with a laugh.
Once word got out about their relationship, "we weren't sure how well accepted that would be," said Reppe. She needn't have worried: Her girlfriends threw her a surprise engagement party, and there were a few other informal gatherings with Champagne, chocolate and friends, where they could introduce themselves as a couple.
One benefit of formalizing a relationship this way is that it allows older couples to dispense with terms like "boyfriend" or "girlfriend," which might be fine for 20-somethings, but can raise eyebrows among the 70- and 80-something set.
"Most of the time we refer to each other as husband and wife just to keep things not so complicated," said Shirley Sapp, referring to her relationship with Doug Oxenhardt. "If you go the other route, people look at you like, 'Well what's the deal?'"
Sapp and Oxenhardt, both in their 70s, were widowed when they met, and each had two grown children. Those children were among 90 guests at their 2013 wedding ceremony in Missouri, complete with a pastor.
"It was just like any other marriage ceremony, except we didn't have the last sentence where the minister will say, 'By the powers vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife,'" Sapp recalled. "He was a really cool pastor, and when we told him our story, he said, 'Sure, I'll do it.'"
But while avoiding marriage may seem like an easy way to keep finances and estates separate, unmarried couples may still face some legal complications, according to Frederick Hertz, a California lawyer and co-author of "Living Together: A Legal Guide for Unmarried Couples."
Hertz noted that some states honour common-law marriage and will consider couples married after a number of years whether or not they got a marriage license, while other states allow unmarried partners to claim money or property "based on an oral or implied agreement."
Hertz also said that signing a credit card or lease with your partner could make you responsible for the other person's debt. Other issues include who has legal authority for medical decisions, and when one partner dies, whether a surviving partner has the right to stay in the home where they lived together. That may depend on who owns it and who inherits it.
Housing is one thing Reppe and Pendergraft thought about early on. When they met, Reppe was living at Inverness Village in a unit that was too small for both of them. When the unit next door opened up, they "basically blew a hole through the wall and got the apartments connected," she said. This way they have their own apartments, but they can also be together, and if something happens to one of them, the other will still have a place to live.
Sapp and Oxenhardt also own separate homes where they spend time together. She owns the villa in Florida where they spend winters, and he owns the house in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, where they live in the warm months. Their retirement finances are separate too: She worked for the Veterans Administration, and he has a pension from the railroads.
But whatever arrangements older couples make as they manage the logistics or social conventions of being together, the love and companionship they share makes it all worthwhile.
"I think when you get to this stage in life, if you found happiness, when you find someone to love and someone who loves you and you can share so many common interests and you don't have to come home to an empty apartment, that's pretty special," said Reppe.
"We laugh a lot," Pendergraft said.
Beth J. Harpaz, The Associated Press