The U.S. Supreme Court’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) ruling has important federal tax implications for same-sex couples who are legally married under applicable state law.  However, the tax results of being married are not always favorable.  Here are the ways that the individual tax situations of some same-sex couples will change in the wake of the June 26 Supreme Court rulings.

Being Married for Federal Tax Purposes

Advantage 1: Filing Joint Returns

When two individuals are considered married for federal tax purposes, filing a joint return can result in a lower combined federal income tax bill than if the couple were unmarried. This is especially true if one spouse earns most or all of the income.

Advantage 2: Tax-Free Employer Benefits

When a couple is married for federal tax purposes, one spouse can receive certain tax-free benefits from the other spouse’s employer. The most common examples are tax-free healthcare coverage and tax-free reimbursements from flexible spending account (FSA) plans.

Advantage 3: Treatment of Inherited Retirement Accounts

When two individuals are married for federal tax purposes and one spouse dies, the surviving spouse can move qualified retirement plan balances that were inherited from the deceased spouse, into their own Individual Retirement Account (IRA).
Then, the surviving spouse can put off taking annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) from the rollover IRA until after he or she turns 70 1/2.

In contrast, when a non-spouse inherits a qualified retirement plan balance and transfers it to an IRA, he or she will usually have to start taking RMDs sooner and in larger amounts, which means less tax deferral benefits.

Advantage 4: Gift and Estate Tax Rules

Two individuals who are married for federal tax purposes can make unlimited gifts to each other while still alive without any negative federal gift or estate tax consequences (assuming the transferee spouse is not a non-resident alien).

If one spouse dies:

  • The surviving spouse can be left an unlimited amount free of any federal estate tax, thanks to the unlimited marital deduction privilege (as long as the surviving spouse is a U.S. citizen).
  • The deceased spouse’s unused unified federal gift and estate tax exemption ($5.25 million for 2013) can be left to the surviving spouse. That way, the surviving spouse can shelter more gifts from the federal gift tax and have a bigger federal estate tax shelter when he or she dies.

Advantage 5: Deductibility of Alimony Payments

After being married for federal tax purposes, certain court-ordered payments to a spouse or ex-spouse can qualify as deductible alimony. In contrast, transfers of money between unmarried individuals are generally not deductible, and they may be treated as gifts for federal tax purposes.

Disadvantage: Marriage Penalty

The one big disadvantage of being considered married for federal tax purposes occurs when both spouses have healthy amounts of taxable income. In this scenario, a couple that is considered married can wind up with a bigger combined federal income tax bill than if the two individuals had remained single taxpayers. This is the so-called marriage penalty in action.

Immediate Impact

Because it apparently only affects same-sex couples that are considered legally married under applicable state law, the Supreme Court’s rejection of DOMA may not have the immediate widespread impact you might expect.

Several states only allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions or domestic partnerships (as opposed to same-sex marriages).

Currently, 30 states have constitutional bans on same-sex marriages. There are also at least eight lawsuits dealing with state same-sex marriage bans pending in state and federal courts.

Where Is Same-Sex Marriage Recognized?

The states that currently recognize same-sex marriage are: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

Other Implications

In addition to tax and estate planning implications, the Supreme Court decision could affect same-sex married couples in other areas including:

  • Social Security benefits
  • Employee benefits
  • Benefits for military spouses (such as healthcare and on-base housing)
  • Immigration (such as one spouse wanting to apply for a green card for the other spouse)

Unanswered Questions

As we await guidance from the IRS and other federal agencies in this still-unsettled legal environment, some of the important, unanswered questions are:

1. Will same-sex civil unions and domestic partnerships be treated the same as state-law same-sex marriages? If the answer is yes, more same-sex couples will be considered married for federal tax purposes. If the answer is no, only couples that were united in the states that permit same-sex marriages would be considered married for federal tax purposes. 

2. Will same-sex couples who were legally married in one state but live in another state that does not allow same-sex marriages be considered married for federal tax purposes?

3. Can spouses who were taxed on healthcare (or other benefits) for their same-sex spouses file amended returns and claim refunds?  What about their employers that withheld and paid FICA tax on benefits for same-sex married couples?

4. When will the IRS begin processing amended returns for same-sex married couples who will benefit from amending prior year returns?

5. How about same-sex married couples who filed an extension request and still have not filed their 2012 returns? Should they file as married, or continue filing as single for federal purposes?

These are only a handful of the many tax questions being asked after the Windsor Court ruling.

Currently, nothing has changed for members of same-sex couples who are not considered legally married or covered by civil union or domestic partnership statutes. They are still considered unmarried for federal tax purposes.