On June 26 the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in states where they were legal.
The change has a huge impact on the lives of gay couples living in states where their marriages are recognized. Ultimately it may even have just as great an impact in states where they are not. Here’s a quick summary of four consequences coming as a result of the DOMA ruling.
1. Federal benefit expansion
Of course, the biggest, most obvious change is that married gay couples qualify for whatever benefits or special treatments the federal government extends to their heterosexual counterparts (including tax penalties). The lawsuit that led to the DOMA ruling revolved around the case of a lesbian couple in New York and their desire to get the same estate tax exemption for surviving spouses as heterosexuals. When Edith Windsor’s wife, Thea Spyer, died in 2009, Windsor was ordered by the IRS to pay more than $350,000 in estate taxes she wouldn’t have if the federal government recognized their marriage.
Spousal and Social Security survivor benefits, and more than 1,000 federally recognized benefits that are tied to marital status, will be extended to couples in states where gay marriage is legalized. The massive federal bureaucracy being how it is, though, means that the benefit discrepancy that inspired the lawsuit may be the slowest to actually change. The Nation notes:
What’s not as clear is how many of those benefits can be quickly extended to same-sex couples. In particular, the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs have some thorny rules that may leave elderly couples and gay veterans in a legal no-man’s land for years to come.
“These two areas are of quite a bit of significance,” said Susan Sommer, the director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, the country’s oldest gay-rights firm. Sommer noted that it’s too early to say exactly what options the executive branch has for extending VA and Social Security benefits to all same-sex spouses in spite of the statutes. “It may well be a different process and higher hurdles.”
Complicating matters a bit for federal employees, the Office of Personnel Management announced Monday that workers in states that have civil unions but not formally recognized same-sex marriages will not qualify for benefits.
President Barack Obama and the Justice Department are urging changes to be implemented “swiftly and smoothly,” but we’re talking about agencies like the IRS and the Social Security Administration here. "Swift" and "smooth" are not words commonly associated with them.