Gay marriage grabs headlines. But it's the more mundane financial tasks of managing a relationship that may play a larger role in how long a union will last. The one thing that unwed unions have in common with official married ones is what makes them last. Communication and contingency planning -- though far from romantic -- are the keys to a happy financial coupling.

But when you open the checkbooks, tax returns, and insurance policies of unwed, live-in couples -- both gay and straight -- it's clear that those without an official marriage certificate are handicapped when it comes to equal financial rights. They face:

  • Less access to insurance price breaks. Though it is improving, depending on which statistics you believe, anywhere from 25% to 90% of employers offer domestic partner benefits.

  • More complicated legal rights. Inheritance and retirement benefits, and medical decisions are not automatically granted to life partners, as they are to married life partners.

  • No ring? No acknowledgment -- at least as a bona fide member of the family by his great-grandmother. (See also: "Lousy Christmas Gifts")

  • No right to alimony if the couple splits.

  • Bigger tax burdens. Uncle Sam considers unwed, cohabiting couples single in terms of income taxes. They pay the piper on their own salary, in addition to paying taxes on the value of perks offered by an employer.

Unwed couples are making inroads in some areas. Consider these progressive policies:

  • "Family" memberships at Costco (NASDAQ:COST), AAA, and the local YMCA. (Platonic roommates can find some money-saving workarounds, too.)

  • Continued access to pension and health insurance for senior citizens.

  • Perks that were previously off-limits to domestic partners -- health, disability, and life insurance, pension benefits, family leave, and mental-health counseling. (See what your state offers at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation website.)

  • Price breaks at rental car businesses.

  • A live, live-in dishwasher with an already established personal CD collection!

  • A break on homeowner's and car insurance from some insurance companies, such as State Farm and Allstate.

Making it official
Though many of the same estate planning and medical directive rights are available to unmarried couples, the difference is they don't happen automatically. You've got to fill out the paperwork to make your wishes recognized in the eyes of the law. It doesn't take much to put a few safeguards in place, and you can go on, skipping through life, with that smile your sweetie loves so much.

First, complete these important documents. (TMF Money Advisor members can call the Ayco Helpline for guidance. If you're not a member, you can test-drive the service for one month free.):

  • Your will (last will and testament). You can get this from an attorney or opt for pre-printed, fill-in-the-blank forms -- though make sure they are up to date and conform to the laws of your state.

  • A living will (advance medical directive). Available free at virtually every hospital in the nation.

  • Durable and medical power of attorney (health-care proxy). See a lawyer for this.

As you're filling out the paperwork, make your heirs apparent. Update all of your beneficiary information -- everything from your 401(k), 403(b), pension, profit-sharing, IRAs, and insurance policies to your coveted bicentennial quarter collection. If children are part of the union (as they are in one in three unmarried households), these protections are that much more important. Lawyers recommend that unmarried couples sign an "acknowledgment of parenthood" or a paternity statement for additional legal protection, in the case of one parent's death or a breakup.

Other ownership issues arise when you make big purchases together -- such as homes and cars. Discuss whether they will be jointly or individually owned/titled. And don't forget to let important people know where you keep your documents. There's only one thing worse than filling out a dead guy's tax forms, and that's doing it without access to his financial records.

If you're considering shacking up, or are already informally living together, there are a lot of joint decisions to be made outside of whose couch you're going to keep. Consider some key money questions and get talking -- together. (that stands for Women's Institute for Financial Education, though their advice is good for both genders) advises domestic partners to put things in writing in a "Living Together Agreement." Yeah, it may feel weird to do so, which is why you should write your drafts over a decent bottle of merlot.

With more and more perks available to the unwed, now's a great time to have a heart-to-heart about money in your relationship.

Dayana Yochim is the author of Couples & Cash: How to Handle Money with Your Honey.