Facts of the June 26 Supreme Court DOMA Rulings

1. Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were married in Canada and resided in New York, a state that recognizes same-sex marriage. Spyer died in 2009 and left her entire estate to Windsor.

Windsor sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses, but was barred from doing so by Section 3 of DOMA.

Windsor paid $363,053 in estate taxes and sought a refund, which the IRS denied. Windsor brought a refund suit, contending that DOMA violates the principles of equal protection incorporated in the Fifth Amendment.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex married couples in states that recognize their marriages must get the same federal benefits that opposite-sex couples receive.

DOMA “contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State,” the ruling stated. “It also forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law…” (Windsor, No. 12-307)

2. California voters passed a ballot initiative known as Proposition 8, amending the state Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples who wished to marry filed suit.

The U.S. District Court declared Prop 8 unconstitutional and prohibited public officials from enforcing the law. After public officials didn’t appeal, private parties did.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court declined to rule, stating the parties appealing the District Court’s order did not have standing to do so. (Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144)

The decision cleared the way for California to recognize same-sex marriage, which it did on June 28.

Other Implications for Same-Sex Couples

In addition to tax and estate planning implications, the Supreme Court Windsor decision could affect same-sex married couples in other areas including:

  • Social Security benefits;
  • Employee benefits;
  • Benefits for military spouses (such as healthcare and on-base housing);
  • Immigration (such as one spouse wanting to apply for a green card for the other spouse).

Where Is Same-Sex Marriage Recognized?

California, Connecticut, Delaware*, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota**, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island**, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia

*Effective date is July 1, 2013
**Effective date is August 1, 2013