On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional (E.S. Windsor, SCt., June 26, 2013), which brings up an important question: what are the major tax planning implications of this ruling? Immediately after the decision, President Obama directed all federal agencies, including the IRS, to revise their regulations to reflect the Court’s order. How the IRS will revise its tax regulations – and when – remains to be seen; but in the meantime, the Court’s decision opens a number of planning tax opportunities for same-sex couples.
The Supreme Court agreed in 2012 to hear an appeal of a federal estate tax case. Due to DOMA, the surviving spouse of a same-sex married couple was ineligible for the federal unlimited marital deduction under Code Sec. 2056(a). The survivor sued for a refund of estate taxes. A federal district court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found unconstitutional Section 3 of DOMA, which defines marriage for federal purposes as only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.
Supreme Court’s Decision
In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court held that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment. Writing for the five-justice majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that "DOMA rejects the long-established precept that the incidents, benefits, and obligations of marriage are uniform for all married couples within each State, though they may vary, subject to constitutional guarantees, from one State to the next." Kennedy explained that "by creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect."
Chief Justice John Roberts, who would have upheld DOMA, cautioned that "the Supreme Court did not decide if states could continue to utilize the traditional definition of marriage." Roberts noted that the majority held that the decision and its holding "are confined to those lawful marriages-referring to same-sex marriages that a State has already recognized."
The Supreme Court’s decision impacts countless provisions in the Tax Code, covering all life events, such as marriage, employment, retirement and estate planning. The effect on the Tax Code cannot be overstated. It is expected that the IRS will move quickly to clarify how the decision impacts many of the more far-reaching provisions, such as filing status and employee benefits. Other provisions, especially the complex estate and gift tax provisions, will likely require more time from the IRS to issue guidance.
For federal tax purposes, only married individuals can file their returns as married filing jointly or married filing separately. Because of DOMA, the IRS limited these married filing statuses to opposite-sex married couples. The IRS is expected to issue guidance. Same-sex couples who filed separate returns may want to explore the benefits of filing amended returns (as married filing jointly), if applicable. Our office will keep you posted of developments.
Among the other provisions in the Tax Code affected by the Supreme Court’s decision are:
- Adoption benefits
- Child tax credit
- Education tax credits and deductions
- Estate tax marital deduction
- Estate tax portability between spouses
- Gifts made by spouses
- Retirement plans
Will the federal government look to where the same-sex couple was married (state of celebration) or where the same-sex couple reside (state of residence) for purposes of federal benefits? The Supreme Court did not rule on Section 2 of DOMA, which provides that no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state. At the time of the Supreme Court’s decision, 12 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage.
In some cases, the rules for marital status are determined by federal regulations, which can be changed without action by Congress. In other cases, the rules are set by statute, which would require Congressional action. Sometimes, a federal agency follows one rule for some purposes but another rule for other purposes. Generally, the IRS has used place of domicile for determining marital status.
If you have any questions about the Supreme Court’s decision and its impact on estate and tax planning, please contact our office.