The United States Supreme Court’s decision this week in U.S. v. Windsor (related to the Defense of Marriage Act, referred to as “DOMA”) essentially prevents the Federal Government from treating same-sex married couples differently than “traditional” married couples, at least in states where same-sex marriages are recognized and protected by that State’s law. As such, the “benefits” applicable to married couples must be afforded to legally married same-sex couples in those states.
What this decision does not do is force States which do not recognize same-sex marriage to do so. The reason why the latter was not addressed by the Court is because that section of DOMA was not challenged in the underlying case by Edith Windsor, the widow of her same-sex deceased spouse, whose own claim related to the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. Because the Court usually only addresses the narrow questions raised in a given case, it did not, in the Windsor case, address that section of DOMA that deals with State (as opposed to Federal) recognition of same-sex marriages. DOMA was not, therefore, completely invalidated, but it was substantially eviscerated.
What federal benefits are protected? According to the Supreme Court’s written opinion, there are more than 1,000 benefits that inure to married couples (in fact, according to the Government Accounting Office (“GAO”), there are specifically 1,138 federal rights associated with marriage), which now inure to all married couples regardless of whether they have a “traditional” marriage of two members of the opposite sex or a same-sex marriage. Prior to this ruling, DOMA effectively served to deny persons in same-sex marriages, even where recognized by their state’s own laws, these 1000+ benefits, while simultaneously making them available or applicable to opposite-sex married partners.
The impact of the ruling is that Mrs. Windsor, the Petitioner in the case itself, will be entitled to a refund of the $360,000 of estate taxes that she paid upon her spouse’s death, as she is now entitled to claim the “estate tax exemption” applicable to spouses under federal law.
Additionally, a list of the benefits now available to same-sex couples, in small part, includes:
• Social Security and Railroad Retirement benefits
• Veterans’ benefits
• Military service benefits
• Employment benefits
• Immigration benefits, including the right to have an alien spouse remain in the U.S. after marriage.
• Intellectual property benefits
• Medicare benefits
• A host of additional tax benefits.
The additional point to take away from this ruling by the Supreme Court, which is applicable to all Americans, regardless of their opinion on this issue, is that the Federal Government’s use of the state-defined class for the purpose of imposing restrictions and disabilities was inconsistent with Constitutional protections. In essence, the Court effectively said that the Federal government’s application of its law (DOMA) injured a class of persons which the State sought to protect.
We all have differing opinions on this, and many other issues. Regardless of one’s personal opinion, it is interesting to observe our judicial process balance the often competing interests of Federal government, State government, and individuals. In essence, the Supreme Court in Windsor effectively establishes only one type of marriage, at least with regard to applying Federal laws, by deciding that if a marriage is sanctioned by the sovereignty of the State that created it, the Federal Government must concede its validity.