NEW YORK -- While many hailed the Supreme Court's landmark decisions on gay rights Wednesday for pushing forward fundamental human rights, same-sex couples were also excited about the new level of financial security the overturn will now afford them.
“I am very excited to not be discriminated against by my own government,” Sarah Gunther, who married her partner, Amy Krosch, last June, told The Huffington Post. "We would have had children regardless. But now that the government can’t discriminate in this way, I feel greater security and confidence that our rights will be respected and we won’t face economic disadvantages when we do start a family."
Thanks to a decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, married same-sex couples are now recognized as spouses by the federal government. That recognition will likely bring with it a whole host of financial boosts for couples like Gunther and Krosch, including gaining access to some of their spouses’ government and employer benefits, the ability to jointly file their federal tax returns and rights to certain workplace benefits mandated by the federal government.
The Williams Institute, a same-sex advocacy think tank, found that 33 percent of lesbian couples and 20 percent of gay male couples without a high school diploma live in poverty -- figures that are higher than the 19 percent of opposite-sex married couples in the same situation. Access to their spouse's employer health benefits, Social Security benefits and rights to the Family and Medical Leave Act that entitles employees to job-protected leave to care for children, spouses, and parents will increase the odds that same-sex couples will be lifted out of poverty, Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women's Law Center, told HuffPost.
“There’s a lot of dollars and cents implications here for married same-sex couples,” said Jenny Pizer, the director of the Law and Policy Project at Lamda Legal, an organization that defends the legal rights of the LGBT community. But, she added, “It does not mean that we just flipped a light switch and people get all the benefits today.”
The ruling will also eliminate some of the many headaches involved in filing a tax return for married same-sex couples, Steve Wamhoff, the legislative director at Citizens for Tax Justice, told HuffPost. Wamhoff said married gay couples would often end up filing their state taxes jointly and their federal taxes independently, increasing the already stressful process. With the DOMA ruling, same-sex married couples will be able to file their federal taxes jointly.
“I'm in a same-sex marriage, and I was filing our taxes, and it was a little complicated,” Wamhoff said. “You’re filing these multiple tax forms in different ways, and that won’t be true anymore for same-sex couples who live in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized.”
Filing a joint tax return may not result in a financial benefit for everyone. Couples in which both spouses take home a similar income, for example, may actually receive more benefits by filing separately. But thanks to the DOMA ruling, couples that benefit from filing jointly can now submit an amended return for up to three years, allowing them to receive those boosts retroactively. Indeed, accountants are already preparing for the deluge of amended return requests.
“It depends on the particular circumstances of a family, what they earn what they own,” Pizer said. “These are the same kinds of issues that different-sex couples deal with all the time.”
While the DOMA ruling is good news financially for same-sex couples in states that allow them to marry, same-sax couples living in states without gay marriage will largely be left out to dry. Gunther also noted that the Supreme Court decisions do not impact the financial hardships of single or divorced members of the LGBT community.
“I feel really strongly that this is a huge victory and a success; it does trouble me that this is all about marriage, though,” she said.
For Wamhoff, having his relationship acknowledged by the federal government’s tax code is a benefit in and of itself.
“You don’t really think of filing your taxes as a particularly deep and meaningful exercise,” he said. “Our relationship is being recognized for what it is, and that’s important.”