Whether gay or straight, people celebrated when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act on June 26. In Maine that night, supporters held a rally inside Portland City Hall, and couples explained what the law change would mean for them.
Steve Ryan and Jim Bishop said having the federal government recognize their Maine marriage would mean they could be together in a nursing home and file joint taxes. For Alissa and Maggie Poisson, having their marriage recognized by federal law meant they wouldn’t encounter custody questions about their infant son if one of them was injured out of state.
But while there was cause to celebrate the landmark decision granting federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples, there was still uncertainty about how the law would be implemented. On Thursday, the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service announced how.
In the broadest federal rule change to result from the Supreme Court decision, the agencies said that it doesn’t matter where you live. All legally married same-sex couples will receive federal tax benefits regardless of whether the state in which they reside recognizes their marriage.
That means a gay couple can marry in Maine and later live in Alabama (not that we would encourage people to leave Maine), and their federal tax benefits will remain intact. Basically, they have freedom to live where they want without fear of losing their federal filing status. The speed of the decision shows the federal government’s sense of urgency to balance its treatment of gay and straight couples.
The ruling means that same-sex couples will be treated as married for all federal tax purposes. As the Treasury explained, it applies to provisions that include claiming personal and dependency exemptions, taking the standard deduction, employee benefits, contributing to an IRA and claiming the earned income tax credit or child tax credit.
The ruling may make tax paperwork slightly complicated for married same-sex couples who don’t live in a state that recognizes their marriage. That’s because they will have to file federal tax returns as married couples but may have to fill out state returns as individuals.
And federal agencies are not all making uniform changes at the same time. While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also announced guidance Thursday to clarify that people have equal access to coverage in a nursing home regardless of sexual orientation, the Social Security Administration is still relying on a standard based on residence.
Still, improvements are ongoing — and growing. The Treasury’s rule change may have been inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less important to those inching closer to being fully legally recognized for what they are: families.