Banks have always found a way to help the rich, regardless of sexual orientation, manage their money, but more recently some savvy financial services companies have found ways to make client services fruitful for the rest of us too.

By Jeremy Quittner

For David Moore and his partner of 17 years, Harry Klein, buying a house together in 2009 in West Orange, N.J., was a huge financial decision. Not only was $300,000 the largest sum of money they had ever spent, but the decision was fraught with all kinds of planning decisions they had put off making until that point. Their mortgage broker, from Wells Fargo, was friendly and helpful enough. But they knew buying a house would bring up more questions about their financial lives than she could answer.

Should they title the house together, and what would the tax implications be for that? Now that they owned property, whom should they go to in order to get their wills—and their living wills—in order, and who would help them figure out what their new tax situation was going to be? There were other questions as mundane as, Did they need to open a joint account to pay the mortgage? Still, there was no one place they could turn to gather all the necessary information. In addition to meeting with real estate brokers and mortgage brokers, they had to seek the advice of an attorney and a financial planner. And all that required money, of course, into the thousands of dollars.

“There really are no protections for same-sex couples if something happens to one or the other,” Moore says. “It is overwhelming what we have to do in order to protect each other.”

While the wealthy—gay or straight—have long had money management help at their fingertips, only recently has the personal finance industry geared services toward gay clients. A big service gap remains to be filled with regard to the gay lower and middle classes, but some institutions are now reaching out to a specifically gay clientele and not just the superrich. They’re reaching out to the rest of us too.

The denial of federal marriage equality in particular presents a money problem for gays. Straight married couples are viewed as one economic entity and are automatically protected when one spouse dies or when that couple divorces. Yet same-sex couples have no such protections and are vulnerable to onerous tax rates or attacks on shared assets by blood relations, whom the government often sees as the next of kin, denying a spousal relationship.

“It boils down to marriage rights,” says Jennifer Hatch, president of Christopher Street Financial, one of the oldest financial advisories for gays and lesbians, based in New York. “The average straight couple gets a lot of their financial setup simply by saying ‘I do.’”

For tax purposes the federal government views same-sex couples as business partners, so everything that involves assets—building them and sharing them—is taxed as if it is part of a business relationship. House buying is the prime example. If one partner buys it but adds the other to the title, the spouse is required to file a gift-tax return with the federal government. (The same thing goes for giving your partner other property, like an expensive car.) Even if a couple buy a house together and use a title called joint tenancy with right of survivorship, there may be undesirable estate tax issues upon one partner’s death. And if that couple haven’t set up a proper will, a surviving partner could wind up sharing the abode with the deceased’s distant family members, whom the courts might view as the legitimate heirs to the property.

Nevertheless, as the concept of family has evolved, so too has the understanding by banks and other financial institutions that gay customers are worth pursuing. Since the mid 1990s, about the time that employee groups started pushing large corporations to extend domestic-partner benefits to same-sex couples, corporate America began to see gays and lesbians as an increasingly important market. Some banks that cater to the wealthy have set up new—or modified existing—practices to engage gay clients. Northern Trust in Chicago, for example, typically deals with high-net-worth individuals, with $1 million or more in assets to invest. In January it rolled out its LGBT and Non-Traditional Family Practice, which focuses on the financial planning needs of same-sex and domestic partners.

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