More than one month after the U.S. Supreme Court found Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, the IRS has yet to issue guidance in critical areas of tax filing, employee benefits, and more. Many taxpayers and tax professionals are questioning what revisions the IRS will make to its rules and regulations. At the same time, other federal agencies have announced changes in their policies to reflect the demise of Section 3 of DOMA.
On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA, which provided that the word “marriage” meant only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word “spouse” referred to only a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife. Because of Section 3 of DOMA, the IRS did not recognize same-sex married couples as married for federal tax purposes.
Now, same-sex married couples who reside in states that recognize same-sex marriage should be entitled to the same tax benefits and responsibilities of opposite-sex married couples. These include the ability to file a joint federal income tax return as a married couple, possible refunds for open tax years, and to take advantage of many benefits in the Tax Code available to married couples. However, it is unclear if this is true for same-sex married couples who reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. As of August 1, 2013, same-sex marriage is recognized in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
The IRS posted an announcement on its website shortly after the Supreme Court’s decision. The agency promised it would “move swiftly to provide revised guidance in the near future.” To date, that is the only official announcement from the IRS. As a result, there has been much speculation on how the IRS will treat same-sex married couples post-DOMA.
The IRS may take the same approach to same-sex marriage as it did more than 50 years ago with common-law marriage. Some states recognize common-law marriage; others do not. Common-law marriage is a term used to describe a marriage that has not complied with the statutory requirements most states have enacted for a ceremonial marriage.
In Rev. Rul. 58-66, the IRS announced that if a state recognizes common-law marriages, the status of individuals living in this relationship is, for federal income tax purposes, that of husband and wife. This rule also applies in the case of taxpayers who enter into a common-law marriage in a state that recognizes their relationship and who move to a state that does not recognize common-law marriage. The IRS still treats the common-law couple as married even if they no longer live in a state that recognizes their marriage. The IRS could treat same-sex married couples, who marry in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage and who move to a state that does not recognize their marriage, in the same way.
Other federal agencies
Within days of the Supreme Court’s decision, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it would use the location of legal marriage for a same-sex couple for immigration purposes. On July 17, DHS’ Bureau of Immigration Appeals (BIA) made its first official decision post-DOMA. The BIA held that DOMA would no longer be an impediment to the recognition of lawful same-sex marriages and will recognize same-sex spouses under the Immigration and Nationality Act if the marriage is valid under the laws of the state where it was celebrated.
The U.S. government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) also announced some changes in its benefits post-DOMA. OPM told federal employees that all legally married same-sex spouses and children of legal same-sex marriages will be eligible family members under the federal employees’ group life insurance program. Additionally, all legally married same-sex spouses will be able to apply for long-term care insurance under the federal long-term care insurance program.
The U.S. Department of Labor is expected to issue guidance on the status of same-sex spouses under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons with continuation of group health insurance coverage under the same terms and conditions as if the employee had not taken leave. Because of DOMA, spouse was defined only as a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.
Many employers are revisiting their employee benefits post-DOMA. Employers may need to review their health and retirement plans, as well as their FMLA and other leave policies. A same-sex married couple presumably would have the same rights to tax-exempt spousal coverage under a health plan and the right to a joint and survivor annuity under a retirement plan as an opposite sex-married couple. The IRS and DOL are expected to issue guidance on how quickly employers must act to make changes to health and retirement plans to reflect the Supreme Court’s decision.
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