Late last year the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two separate cases impacting various same-sex marriage issues. As we have frequently discussed, in ruling on these issues the Supreme Court may set precedent which impacts marriages across the country, including in New York. In so doing the Court may set in motion legal changes that impact estate planning issues for all of the thousands of same sex couples living throughout the state.
However, we will have to wait a while longer before anything is finalized. That is because agreeing to hear the case was just the beginning of the process. The next step was the setting of specific dates for hearings in which both sides argue their case and answer questions posed by the nine justices.
This week the Court released its schedule for those gay marriage cases. As reported in the Huffington Post, the hearings will take place over two days in late March. First, on March 26th the court will hear arguments in Hollingsworth v. Perry. Perry is the case related to Proposition 8 out in California. Beyond "standing" issues, this legal matter may clarify what the U.S. Constitution has to say about the substantive right to marry for same-sex couples. Depending on what they decide, nothing can change, gay marriage may be allowed in California, or, theoretically, gay marriage could become the law of the land across the country.
On the following day, March 27th, the Court will conduct hearings on the second case, United States v. Windsor. This is the legal matter that originated with a New York couple and has more direct bearings on the rights of local same sex couples. The Windsor case, if it survives past the standing issues, will decide whether or not the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is constitutional. As readers know, DOMA acts a bar that prevents federal recognition of even state marriage for same sex couples. This has implications on issues like estate taxes and qualification for federal benefits, including Social Security.
Obviously it is important for all couples who may be affected to follow as these cases are argued and then decided. Following these March hearings, it will likely be several months before the justices reach their opinion and release it to the public. While the final date is impossible to predict it is likely that the judgement will be issued sometime in late June. Also, the changes may not take effect immediately. Depending on what is decided it could be weeks or even months before the implementation date of certain components. In any event, it remains critical for same sex couples to be diligent about their planning so that they are protected right now, no matter what the future holds.