Editor: Mark G. Cook, CPA, MBA
Procedure & Administration
A federal district court in Massachusetts recently rendered an important decision in the continuing legal conflict over same-sex marriage. In Gill v. Office of Personnel Management, No. 09-10309-JLT (D. Mass. 7/8/10), a district judge held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, P.L. 104-199 (DOMA), is unconstitutional, violating the equal protection principles of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process clause. If this decision is ultimately upheld, same-sex married couples will be allowed many of the same federal benefits afforded their heterosexual married counterparts—at least within Massachusetts, the jurisdiction of the court—including the ability to file joint federal income tax returns.
Signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, DOMA defines marriage for federal purposes and discusses the powers that are reserved to states in recognizing same-sex marriages. More specifically, Section 3 of DOMA defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. The word “spouse” is defined in the act for purposes of federal law as a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife. Congress asserted at the time that the objective of DOMA was to defend traditional marriage and morality, encourage responsible procreation, and conserve limited resources.
Before the passing of DOMA, the federal government had generally accepted the standards adopted by states in determining marital status. If a couple was deemed legally married by a state, the federal government typically accepted that designation when distributing federal benefits. Once DOMA went into effect, this was no longer the case. Benefits were granted based on identities of the people involved in the marriage and not on the marital status alone. Federal agencies no longer accepted the state’s designation when it came to same-sex couples and their lawful marriages. For federal tax purposes, same-sex couples who are lawfully married under state law are not recognized as married under federal law. While same-sex married couples may file joint state returns, they may not take the same filing status on their federal returns. Many other federal benefits for heterosexual couples are not extended to same-sex married couples. Among them are health benefits based on federal employment and Social Security retirement and survivor benefits.
DOMA was initiated by Congress following a 1993 decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court in Baehr v. Lewin (852 P.2d 44 (Haw. 1993)) indicating that same-sex couples might be entitled to marry under the state’s constitution. It was the first ruling of its kind in the United States, as Hawaii inched very close to extending marriage rights to same-sex partners. However, in response to the decision in Baehr v. Lewin, Congress sought a means to define marriage for purposes of federal law and to give each state the ability to decide what constitutes marriage under its own laws. Thus, in 1996 DOMA was enacted.
The plaintiffs in Gill v. Office of Personnel Management—seven same-sex married couples and three survivors of same-sex spouses—sought to challenge the constitutionality of DOMA. The plaintiffs were all married in Massachusetts after the state allowed same-sex couples to marry in May 2004. The plaintiffs contended that due to the operation of Section 3 of DOMA, they had been denied certain federal marriage-based benefits that were available to their heterosexual counterparts.
After a two-month trial in Boston, the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the government had no basis for denying benefits to same-sex married couples. In addition, the court found that Congress had no legitimate interest in applying a uniform definition of marriage for purposes of determining federal rights, benefits, and privileges. Thus, the plaintiffs were entitled to the federal benefits they sought. This would include allowing them to file joint federal income tax returns.
The ruling was a victory for advocates of same-sex marriage, who see this case as validation of their position. Still, it appears that the proceedings are far from over. The issue is back in the hands of the Justice Department, which must decide soon whether to appeal. On August 17, the court granted the defendants’ motion to stay the judgment, pending appeal. If the Justice Department appeals the case, the decision will be stayed until the conclusion of the appeals case. The First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston would hear the appeal. The saga of same-sex marriage continues.
Mark Cook is a partner at Singer Lewak LLP in Irvine, CA.
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