Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Supreme Court DOMA Ruling: What happened and what are the future implications?

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision held that Section 7 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which limited the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples, violated the Fifth Amendment.

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were a legally married same-sex couple. When Spyer died in 2009, the federal government did not allow the estate tax exemption for bequests to widows because of DOMA. Spyer’s estate was forced to pay the tax.

In United States v. Windsor, Windsor challenged Sec. 7 of DOMA on the grounds that the law violated the Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. The Supreme Court agreed, stating that the principle purpose of Sec. 7 of DOMA was to demean those in homosexual marriages and to deprive homosexual couples of the rights and privileges that were available to heterosexual couples under the federal laws. The government returned the federal estate taxes that had been paid from Spyer’s estate.   

DOMA has not been invalidated in its entirety. The Supreme Court’s decision is limited only to Sec. 7 of DOMA. While the Windsor ruling does not legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, the ruling has allowed for same-sex couples to enjoy certain rights and benefits under federal law which were previously unavailable to them, such as filing a joint federal income tax return. 

Sec. 3 of DOMA, which is still in effect, gives states discretion in choosing whether to recognize any legally formed same-sex relationship.  Same-sex married couples would be wise to seek legal advice on protecting their rights to the extent possible before traveling or moving to a state which will not recognize their legal relationship.