WASHINGTON (BP)—The Obama administration has begun making certain legally married same-sex couples will reap benefits from a historic ruling earlier this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Two departments of the federal government announced Thursday (Aug. 29) homosexual couples who are legally married will be treated the same as heterosexual married couples for purposes of taxes and Medicare coverage in nursing homes.
In both cases, the new rules apply to same-sex couples regardless of the state in which they reside—even if that state has not legalized such marriages.
The Department of the Treasury, in conjunction with the Internal Revenue Service, said such gay couples will be considered married when it comes to all federal taxes, including income, estate and gift taxes. As a result, legally married same-sex couples must file their federal income tax returns as either "married filing jointly" or "married filing separately."
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), meanwhile, announced that a person enrolled in a private Medicare plan will be able to benefit from equal coverage for care at a nursing home in which a same-sex spouse resides.
While landmark in nature, the new regulations came as no surprise after the Supreme Court struck down in late June a section of a federal law defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. In that 5-4 opinion, the justices said the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated "equal protection" under the Constitution by refusing to recognize gay marriages. The ruling opened the way for same-sex couples to access federal benefits previously limited to heterosexual couples.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said his department's ruling "provides certainty and clear, coherent" guidance for married same-sex couples. It also assures such couples "they can move freely throughout the country knowing that their federal filing status will not change," Lew said.
Other rules changing federal marriage policies are sure to follow those from Treasury and HHS. For her department, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the guidance "is the first of many steps that we will be taking over the coming months to clarify the effects of the Supreme Court's decision and to ensure that gay and lesbian married couples are treated equally under the law."
Pro-family advocates decried the new regulations, especially their impact on states where same-sex marriage remains illegal.
"State family policies have been undermined today by the Obama administration," said Chris Gacek, senior fellow for regulatory policy at the Family Research Council. "[We] are displeased to see the Obama administration's lack of respect for state marriage laws."
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, charged the Treasury Department with "grossly overstepping its authority."
"The Obama administration is intent on forcing same-sex 'marriage' on an unwilling public," Brown said in a written statement. "Congress alone has the responsibility of determining federal tax law."
Gay marriage supporters applauded the administration and called for other federal agencies to follow suit.
"No family should have to worry about losing important federal rights and benefits, simply because they live in a state that doesn't recognize them as equal under the law," said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign. The campaign is the country's largest organization advocating for rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Under the new rules, a same-sex couple can marry in a jurisdiction where such a union is legal and still receive the benefits if they live in a state or move to a state where gay marriage is illegal. For instance, two lesbians who live in Virginia, which has not legalized same-sex marriage, could have a wedding in Maryland, which has legalized such unions, and still gain the federal benefits in their home state.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage, but the Aug. 29 rulings also cover ceremonies performed in U.S. territories or foreign countries. The rules apply only to marriage, not to domestic partnerships or civil unions.
Same-sex couples may file claims for refunds for tax years back to 2010, according to the Treasury Department.
The new rules may prompt some states where gay marriage is illegal to make changes, a tax lawyer said.
"Most state income tax regimes begin with federal taxable income as the starting point," Marvin Kirsner of the law firm Greenberg Traurig told The New York Times. "These state taxing authorities will have to figure out how to deal with a same-sex married couple who file a joint income tax return for federal tax purposes.
"We will need to see guidance from each non-recognition state to see how this will be handled," he said.
In its DOMA ruling June 26, the Supreme Court affirmed lower court decisions that struck down only Section 3 of the law signed by President Clinton. Section 3 defined marriage as a heterosexual union for purposes of such matters as federal benefits and barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
The 12 states that have legalized same-sex marriage are Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.
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