A year after Supreme Court ruling, a rundown of what’s changed for same-sex couples


A protester raising a flag outside of the U.S. Supreme Court during last year's hearings on same-sex marriage. (REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

When the Supreme Court ruled a year ago today to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, a lot of things got easier for gay couples.

Now that their marriages are recognized by the federal government, same-sex couples have acquired a simpler tax filing process, broader family protections and other federal spousal benefits.  But a year after the "United States vs. Windsor" decision, some of the basic rights granted to opposite-sex married couples are still pretty complicated for same-sex couples. "The good news is there’s been a lot of progress -- the administration has done [a lot] over a short period of time," says William Moran, an adviser with Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. "But there are still things that need to be addressed."

The most notable disparities were singled out by the Justice Department last week in a report that pointed out many same-sex couples are still unable to claim benefits from the Social Security Administration and Veterans Affairs in states that don't recognize their unions. But financial advisers and gay rights advocates say those aren't the only areas where improvements are needed. Here is a rundown of what's grown easier for same-sex couples and what could be improved:

Social Security benefits: After the Windsor ruling, same-sex married couples living in states that recognized their marriages were now entitled to Social Security spousal benefits, such as survivor benefits and spousal retirement benefits, just like any other married couple. But as the Justice Department pointed out last week, federal rules specify that Social Security benefits need to be based on the law of the state the married couple lives in, preventing those in states that don't allow for same-sex marriage from taking advantage of spousal benefits.

Congress would need to step in to guarantee that gay couples could take advantage of Social Security benefits regardless of where they live. The Social Security Administration did, however, recently issue guidance saying that the agency will issue spousal benefits to same-sex partners in states that don't recognize same-sex marriage but do allow civil unions or domestic partnerships.

Veteran benefits: The department of Veterans Affairs is also required to base spousal benefits on the laws of the state the couple lives in. That means couples living in states that don't allow gay marriage are denied marriage-based veteran benefits, such as the ability to file for dependency claims and survivor pensions. Here too, lawmakers would need to act to make those benefits available to same-sex couples regardless of where they live. The National Cemetery Administration, however, is allowing same-sex spouses of veterans to be buried alongside their partners.

Income taxes: As a result of the Supreme Court decision, meeting the annual April 15 tax deadline is now usually no more complicated for same-sex couples than it is for any other married couple. That's because the Internal Revenue Service lets gay couples file as married on their federal tax returns, eliminating the cumbersome filing process some couples  faced previously when they could file as married on their state returns but had to file as single people on their federal returns.

Some couples are still facing complications preparing returns in states that don't recognize their unions. While they can now file as married on their federal returns, some states are requiring couples to file as single on their state tax returns or to provide additional documentation that is not required of opposite-sex married couples. North Carolina, for instance, requires same-sex spouses to file as single on their state tax returns and to attach dummy federal tax returns with a single filing status for each person (which don't get filed to the IRS).

Being able to file taxes as a married couple isn't just about reducing paperwork: Most couples see a smaller tax bill after tying the knot, especially if one spouse earns significantly more. Couples that crunch the numbers and find they may have overpaid on federal taxes during the years they weren't able to file as a married couple can file amended returns, using a married filing status this time, to collect a tax refund.  (The IRS has more guidance for same-sex couples here.)

Family leave: The Labor Department proposed a rule last week stating that all employees should be eligible for leave to care for a same-sex spouse regardless of whether they live in states that recognize their marriage. After the Supreme Court ruling, those rights were only clearly extended to couples living in states that allow same-sex marriage. The Labor Department rule, which would apply to private-sector employers only, could be finalized later this summer.

Health care: Even before last year's Supreme Court ruling, about two-thirds of Fortune 500 employers offered health benefits to employees' same-sex spouses, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The catch was that workers and employers had to pay taxes on those benefits because the marriages weren't recognized by the federal government, costing workers up to $1,000 more each year, according to a 2007 report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank. Now those companies can offer health benefits tax free to same-sex spouses, just as they would an opposite-sex spouse. Couples that previously paid taxes on health-care benefits may be able to file amended tax returns to get the money back in the form of a refund.

Because the Supreme Court ruling did not require employers to offer health benefits to same-sex spouses, the accessibility of health benefits for same-sex couples can still depend on state regulations. Companies in the states that recognize same-sex marriages may be compelled to extend these benefits to same-sex partners, says Deena Fidas, director of Workplace Equality Programs for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group. But in some of the states that haven't legalized same-sex marriage, "the work continues as it always has to work with private sector employers to include same-sex partner benefits," Fidas says.

Immigration: The Department of Homeland Security announced that same-sex marriages will be treated the same as opposite-sex marriages for immigration purposes. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services will generally consider a same-sex marriage valid if it took place in a state that allows the unions. That means that U.S. citizens and permanent residents can file petitions to sponsor their same-sex spouses when it comes to family-based immigrant visas and that U.S. citizens can file to get visas for fiances of the same sex. Same-sex spouses can also take advantage of the reduced residence period offered to other spouses looking to become citizens.  (Read more about immigration treatment of same-sex partners here.)

Jonnelle Marte is a reporter covering personal finance. She was previously a writer for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal.
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