Yesterday was a blockbuster moment for those who believe in equal marriage rights for all couples, as well as all those who follow important developments at the U.S. Supreme Court. That is because he Court issued two opinions that will surely be included in some Constitutional Law textbooks in the years to come.
Perhaps most importantly, the Court ruled in the case of Windsor v. U.S. that a portion of the federal law known as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. In so doing, the Court’s decision will have immediate impact on the rights and long-term planning of all married same sex couples in New York–as well as the other eleven states that allow such unions.
Justice Kennedy wrote the opinion for the divided 5-4 Court. Many observers expected Kennedy to be the swing vote in the case, but if he decided to strike DOMA (which he did), it was unclear what his underlying arguments would entail. More specifically, many thought that Kennedy might base his decision entirely on “federalism” grounds, arguing that, regardless of the merit of the law, it was not the federal government’s role to make such sweeping decisions about marriage when those decisions have almost always been left to the states.
Yet the logic used in the opinion is far more sweeping. The crux of DOMAs unconstitutionality, said the court, was in its violation of gay couples rights to equal protection implicit in the 5th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Kennedy wrote, “The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the States.”
Kennedy goes on to make clear the harm of the law, “Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways. By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound.”
So what does this mean for New York same-sex couples? Essentially, the “second-class” status of their marriages are now gone. All couples legally married in New York receive the same federal benefits (and obligations) as every other. This will apply to estate tax exemptions, Social security benefits, income tax filing options, immigration concerns and much more.
This marks an incredibly positive development for those who value equality and fairness under the law. For assistance understanding how this decision may affect your family’s elder law or estate planning, please contact our team of attorneys today.