The IRS owes Edith Windsor $363,053, and other fiscal consequences of the DOMA decision

June 26, 2013

The Supreme Court today overturned a key element of the Defense of Marriage Act, ruling that the federal government must recognize state-authorized marriages, even when they are between two men or two women. That's the major headline, anyway: A sweeping victory for gay rights. There is a smaller outcome derived from the same decision: The U.S. Treasury owes Ms. Edith Windsor of New York City $363,053. Plus interest!

Edith Windsor, call your accountant. Uncle Sam owes you more than $350,000. (Andy Ryan)
Edith Windsor, call your accountant. Uncle Sam owes you more than $360,000. (Andy Ryan)

That is the amount that the estate of Windsor's late wife, Thea Spyer, paid in taxes upon Spyer's death in 2009. Had they been a heterosexual married couple, there would have been no tax due, but by virtue of the Defense of Marriage Act the federal government did not recognize their marriage as valid for tax purposes. This was the provision the Supreme Court found unconstitutional, with wide-ranging consequences for gay equality.

But it also has some surprising impacts for the personal finances of hundreds of thousands of gay couples and the federal budget. The application of the decision to Windsor alone will increase the federal budget deficit by $363,053. (Or, phrased more happily, reduce the amount of inappropriately timed fiscal tightening by that amount).

Writ large across the economy, that means that federal recognition of gay marriages could have a fiscal impact, if not a huge one.

The last time the Congressional Budget Office looked at the question was nearly a decade ago, but in 2004, the CBO found that federal recognition of gay marriages would actually increase tax receipts by 0.1 percent, amid offsetting forces: More couples would face the "marriage penalty" in which two income-earning people who marry face a higher tax bill than they would have faced separately. But there are also people like Edith Windsor, who will face lower estate tax bills because those taxes are not charged for money or assets passed to a spouse.

On the spending side, one of the biggest impacts is on Social Security and other federal programs. As the 2004 CBO report notes, "As a general rule, married people fare better under Social Security than single people do, and married couples with one earner fare better than two-earner couples do." At the simplest level, more married couples means a more generous Social Security system, due to survivor benefits that allow a widow or widower to continue receiving benefits after their spouse dies. The CBO reckoned those numbers would be relatively modest, however, because gay couples are more likely to both be wage earners than straight couples, and because they are the same gender, it is less likely that one will dramatically outlive the other. The CBO estimated the increased federal spending due to same-sex marriage at about $200 million a year from 2010 to 2014, a pittance in the context of the federal budget.

State-level analyses have fit the same pattern. As Suzy Khimm notes here, studies in Maine and Rhode Island both pointed to small but measurable improvements to those states' fiscal pictures from the legalization of gay marriage.

At a more human level, gay couples have spent decades having to find legal workarounds to simulate some of the tax advantages that straight couples take for granted, such as owning  investments through limited partnerships or writing legally enforceable contracts before buying a home together. With 12 states and the District now recognizing same-sex marriages, and with today's Supreme Court decision and the federal government poised to recognize those marriages for purposes of the tax code and federal benefits, a great deal of that financial engineering will likely go by the wayside.

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Lydia DePillis · June 26, 2013