Joe Burwick, CPA
The Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA and Prop 8 is not only a civil rights win for same sex couples- it’s a financial win for many.
In an unprecedented event last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) singled out same-sex marriage and treated same-sex couples "as living in marriages less respected than others." This week’s ruling will now give same-sex couples many of the same benefits (and in some cases, drawbacks) as any other married couple in the eyes of the law. Married same-sex couples in a dozen states and the District of Columbia will now be eligible for more than “1,000 spousal benefits previously off limits under DOMA.” And the court's other decision on Wednesday, striking down California's Prop 8, paves the way for same-sex marriages to resume in that state.
Key Aspects of the DOMA Ruling Include:
Income tax: Same-sex couples will now be able to file their federal income taxes jointly. For many couples -- especially those where one person earns significantly more than the other -- merging incomes for tax purposes will result in big savings. In addition, many education benefits, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Credit, are now available to the spouse in a same-sex marriage where one spouse pays for qualified expenses of the other.
Health insurance: Some same-sex couples pay income tax on imputed income for the medical benefits one partner receives through the other's health insurance plan; this will now likely change. Meanwhile, many federal employees will likely be granted spousal benefits like partner health insurance.
Estate and Gift tax: Same-sex couples will also be exempt from gift tax when transferring assets to each other. Under DOMA, any gift between same-sex spouses of more than $14,000 (the 2013 annual gift tax exclusion) began utilizing the lifetime exclusion limit of $5.25 million-- after which tax was assessed on gifts exceeding the exclusion. Opposite-sex couples have never been subject to that tax. Same-sex couples will also be eligible to “split” gifts to take advantage of a doubled annual gift tax exclusion ($14,000 above x 2 married individuals or $28,000 for 2013) In addition, the unused lifetime exclusion of the decedent spouse is now portable and will allow the estate of the surviving spouse to utilize it.
Social Security benefits: Same-sex couples will now be eligible for the same federal tax treatment and Social Security benefits as opposite-sex couples in the event that one spouse passes away. This means a surviving spouse will be eligible for Social Security survivor’s benefits and will be exempt from the federal estate tax on assets exceeding $5.25 million. Note: In states where same-sex marriage is banned, this issue still has to be sorted out as the Social Security Administration has based these benefits on the state of residence.
While many will receive the benefits of this ruling; they will also receive its downside. For example, same-sex couples who divorce may be subject to the federal gift tax when dividing assets, or be partially responsible for the back taxes of the divorcing partner. Also, same-sex married couples will now have to file as either married filing joint, surviving spouse or married filing separate. Thus, the “marriage penalty” will impact some same-sex couples.
What the decision doesn't do: While many specifics of the Supreme Court's ruling are still blurry, it appears that couples must be married at a state level for all of these federal benefits to apply -- meaning domestic partnerships and civil unions don't qualify. It's also unclear whether federal benefits will apply to same-sex couples who marry in a state where same-sex marriage is legal but move to a state where it's not recognized.
To learn more check out this special report detailing Post DOMA Tax Implications
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