The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015-1 ustc ¶50,357) on June 26, 2015 continues what was set in motion in 2013: the expansion of tax benefits to same-sex married couples. In Obergefell, the Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex. The Court further held that states must recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when a marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out of state.
In 2013, the Supreme Court decided Windsor v. U.S (2013-2 ustc ¶50,400). Windsor was an estate tax case, which challenged Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Section 3 defined marriage as a man-woman relationship for federal purposes. The Court in Windsor struck down Section 3 as unconstitutional.
After Windsor, the IRS issued Rev. Rul. 2013-17. The IRS announced that it would take a place of celebration approach to same-sex marriage. The IRS would recognize, for federal tax purposes, a marriage of same-sex individuals that was validly entered into even if the married couple is domiciled in a state that did not recognize the validity of same-sex marriages. In Notice 2014-19, the IRS issued guidance for retirement plans, reflecting Windsor.
Since Windsor, a number of cases challenging state bans on same-sex marriage moved through the federal courts, including Obergefell. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Obergefell.
Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the Court’s opinion in Obergefell. Kennedy wrote that the “the Fourteenth Amendment requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex and to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-State.”
State prohibitions on same-sex marriage, Kennedy added, “abridge central precepts of equality. Same-sex couples are denied all the benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right. The Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.”
However, four justices dissented. The dissenting judges would have held that the fundamental right to marry does not include a right to make a State change its definition of marriage. “The people of a State are free to expand marriage to include same-sex couples, or to retain the historic definition.”
For federal tax purposes, the treatment of same-sex couples as on par with opposite-sex couples since the Windsor decision will continue unchanged. The IRS is likely to issue more guidance to reflect the Court’s decision in Obergefell. Many other federal agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, also are expected to issue guidance reflecting Obergefell. The Obergefell decision also impacts retirement, pension and health care benefits of many same-sex married couples.
For state tax purposes, same-sex married couples in states that did not recognize their marriages have had to file as single individuals for state tax purposes. Under the Obergefell decision, these couples have a Constitutional right to file amended returns as married at the state level. Whether the normal three-year limitations period for filing these amended returns will apply remains to be tested. Also uncertain may be whether same-sex married couples must now retroactively file jointly or whether re-filing will be made optional, either state-by-state or nationwide.
If you have any questions about the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell and its impact on taxes, please contact us at (847) 267-9600.