The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is a federal law passed in 1996 that defines marriage for federal purposes as only between one man and one woman. As our New York estate planning lawyers have often discussed, this means that same-sex couples married in our state are still not considered married for federal purposes. This has serious implications for tax preparation, estate planning, and a host of other concerns facing these residents. DOMA prevents married individuals from filing joint federal tax returns, receiving Social Security benefits, or having tax-free inheritances.
Many advocates on all sides of the aisle are working to overturn the law. Bills have been advanced in Congress which would repeal DOMA. However, with the current partisan split it appears unlikely that these legislative measures are likely to pass anytime soon. But that does not mean DOMA is here to stay. Most of the recent action on the issue has taken place in the courts. Several federal lawsuits have been filed which challenge the constitutionality of the legislation. President Obama has refused to defend the measure, and so the law is currently being defended under the auspices of the Republican leadership in the U.S. of Representatives.
Last month a U.S. District Court judge in one of those cases found that DOMA (or at least section 3 of the law) violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The case is being appealed to the federal appellate court. This particular ruling relates only to one provision of the law as applied to one couple. However, it is a clear indicator that the entirety of DOMA may one day–perhaps soon–be found unconstitutional.
Each New York estate planning attorney at our firm appreciates the impact that changes to DOMA will have for these couples. We are not alone. According to a Forbes article this week, many local business owners dealing with the complexities of the dual federal/state rules regarding marriage have actually called for repeal of the law as well. In an amicus brief filed in the case challenging the constitutionality of DOMA, several large businesses noted that lack of fairness in federal law essentially forces employers to treat their employees differently. Federal law provides workers with certain benefits. The brief notes that “these protections provide security and support to an employee grappling with sickness, disability, childcare, family crisis, or retirement, allowing the employee to devote more focus and attention to his work.” Unequal federal treatment of these couples, therefore, has negative effects on the businesses’ work environments.
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