As I pointed out in a post last week, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) exacerbates the income inequality faced by families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, especially those with children, by denying them the tax benefits that flow freely to straight couples. Well, another chart from an October report from the Center for American Progress, the Family Equality Council and the Movement Advancement Project shows two other areas in life where LGBT families are significantly harmed because our country’s laws haven’t caught up to the fact that gay people exist and have families.
On Page 15 of the introduction of “All Children Matter,” we are introduced to two couples — one heterosexual (Darren and Angela), one lesbian (Jennifer and Kate) — to dramatize the inequities between them. Both have two children through donor insemination. They each have a household income of $40,000. What should be a level playing field tilts in favor of the straight couple in any number of ways. But it is most pronounced and stark when it comes to health care and death. While you can read the details of these hypothetical couples on Pages 15-17, I want to focus on three specific points.
Darren, Angela and their two children
Darren and Angela had their two children through donor insemination. Both are legally recognized as the parents of their two children. Because they are married, Darren’s health insurance plan covers his family. Darren and Angela file joint tax returns. Because he is the family’s primary earner and a legally recognized parent, Darren is able to take advantage of $6,000 child-care tax credits that yield $2,215 in tax savings annually. And when Darren dies in a car accident, Angela and their two children get an annual Social Security survivor benefit of $27,936 until the kids reach age 18. For Jennifer and Kate, a similar tragedy is compounded by DOMA and backward adoption laws.
Jennifer, Katie and their two children
Like Darren and Angela, Jennifer and Kate had their two children through donor insemination. Katie is the biological mother. But because of the adoption laws where they live, only Katie is recognized as their legal parent. This means that only she can make medical decisions for the children, and it requires Jennifer to carry legal papers that specify she has the authority to make such decisions in Katie’s absence.
Tilted playing field Example 1: The health insurance Jennifer gets through her job is not available to Katie. And because Jennifer is a legal stranger to her children, they cannot be covered under her employer-sponsored coverage either. So, they buy insurance for Katie and the kids, which costs an additional $3,105 annually. Over the course of 18 years that’s an extra $55,890 that Jennifer and Katie must pay that Darren and Angela don’t.
Tilted playing field Example 2: Like Darren, Jennifer is the primary earner in her family. Unlike Darren, she is not able to file jointly with her spouse because of DOMA or to avail herself of child tax credits and other child-related deductions because she is not the legal parent. That adds up to $6,000 in child tax credits and deductions unavailable to Jennifer. It also means she must pay $2,215 more in taxes annually. These child-related benefits last until the children are 12, which adds up to $33,340 in lost income to the family.
Tilted playing field Example 3: Like Darren, Jennifer dies. Because Katie and the children were legal strangers to Jennifer, they are denied $27,936 in Social Security survivor benefits until the kids reach age 18. Social Security benefits for Katie to help with raising them would have ended when they turned 16. That would total $130,032 in lost benefits. And because Jennifer’s will is not in order, her estranged parents were able to win legal dispute against Jennifer’s survivors — again, because they are legal strangers to Jennifer. As a result, they lose their home and Jennifer’s savings.
These three examples show an added financial burden for the lesbian couple of $219,262 over 18 years. This is the kind of insecurity LGBT families face. Being legal strangers to your spouse and children. Carrying legal documents drawn up to give you authority to make decisions you should have as a matter of course. Bearing the expense of getting said documents and all the other policies needed to keep the playing field level. And worrying that you’re one technicality, cranky judge or litigious relative away from being stripped of your home or your inheritance or both.
This is neither fair nor defensible. And it will stay that way until DOMA is repealed or the tax code is changed in a way that brings equity and fairness to same-sex families as a matter of course. A bill to repeal DOMA was introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) last year. It has the backing of President Obama and was passed out of the Judiciary Committee in November. Politically speaking, the bill won’t go anywhere in this election year. Perhaps the Supreme Court will weigh in before Congress shows the courage to bring this vital bill up for a vote. When that might be is unclear, but the tilted playing field will be righted. It’s only a matter of time.