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Marry me – or pay the tax

Famous examples of this perverse law at play are both positive and negative – as defined by the 20th century Harvard sociologist Robert K Merton (who also, interestingly, defined the Self-Fulfilling and -Defeating Prophesy).

There are lots of examples of positive unintended consequences, like old Cold War demilitarised zones – such as that between the Koreas, the one that divides Cyprus and large swathes of central Europe have now developed into extraordinarily lush natural habitats as they have been untainted by human habitation for half a century.

Another, rather jolly one, is in medicine. Viagra was originally developed as a medication for the heart for sufferers of high blood-pressure… but we all know what it is really for. And those yellow stickies were invented by accident – the glue just wasn’t sticky enough for its intended use. The rest is history. 

Negatively, there is carved into history Prohibition in the United States between 1919 and 1933. This tricky amendment to abolish the sale of alcohol was cut into the Constitution in a bid to exterminate runaway public drunkenness. It didn’t, but instead creatMarriage and taxed a massive infrastructure for organised crime which exists in the US to this day.

More amusingly, on the negative side, in 2003 Hollywood legend Barbra Streisand tried to sue a photographer and a celebrity website for posting a photograph of her home. Prior to the lawsuit only six images had been downloaded, two of them by her attorneys. Within days of the suit going public, 420,000 people visited the site and the case has become a favourite of sociology lecturers everywhere.

Just for puckish fun then – here is a picture of the great lady’s house. So it was with considerable happiness that my attention was drawn this week to a modern-day law of unintended consequences. Better still, this is a victimless one though the loser is the tax-man.

Let me explain. Over the years, various tax allowances which made it an attractive fiscal proposition to get married have been abolished but now, because of HMRC’s perhaps inaction, getting hitched has again become cool because it gives a married couple an exemption from Inheritance Tax if the worst happens and one of the partners dies. It can also be advantageous in relation to pensions.

You only pay inheritance tax if you have assets worth more than £325,000 but in many parts of the country that’s almost anyone who owns their own home. Because of decades of rising house prices, making it even more pertinent to those in their 50s contemplating their retirement, Registry Offices up and down the land are doing a roaring trade in middle-aged matrimony.

The story was picked up by BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour recently (don’t ask, I won’t tell… ahem)  which unearthed several couples who had tied the knot after decades and several children now grown-up, even grandchildren, attending the ceremony.

By Steve McDowell

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