Earlier this week we shared information on the latest challenge to the U.S. Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Windsor v. United States. While the case awaits final resolution, many are working to spread information about the story behind the lawsuit. The goal is to better explain to the community at large how this sort of law affects same-sex couples. Each New York estate planning lawyer at our firm understands the significance of the law in the lives of local couples. It is about more than words but the actual rights, obligations, and privileges given to some couples and not others.
As reported in the Washington Post, the lead plaintiff in the case, Edie Windsor met her long-time partner, Thea Spyer, in 1963. Four and a half decades later, the pair was still together following a lifetime of love and happiness. Following Thea’s long battle with multiple sclerosis, the couple decided to legally marry in 2007 before Thea’s condition deteriorated further. It represents the strength of a couple’s commitment and the ability of society to change to recognize the value of that commitment.
Yet, while enormous strides have been made, actual equality remains elusive. That is, in part, because of DOMA. Edie hopes to change that.
Sadly, Thea passed away in 2009. As expected, she left her estate to Edie which mostly included the two homes owned by the couple. They owned a Manhattan apartment and small house in the Hamptons. Each property was purchased long ago, but the values skyrocketed over time.
For hetereosexual couples, the inheritance would be a simple transfer from two spouses without estate tax ramifications. Yet, even though they were legally married and together for forty five years, the federal government treated Thea and Edie as strangers. That subjected Edie to estate taxes. Edie was forced to find a way to pay a $360,000 tax bill.
That tax owed by Edit specifically because she was in a same-sex relationship, makes up the crux of her legal challenge to DOMA. The lawsuit was filed on her behalf by various legal entities, including the New York Civil Liberties Union foundations. The Obama Administration has refused to defend the law, and so the defense is being handled by a congressional group led by George W. Bush’s former solicitor general.
While the law’s defenders are framing the issue as one related to Congressional powers, the plaintiff’s attorneys are keeping the effect of the law on the couple front and center. Our estate planning attorneys appreciate that while big issues are tossed about, what matters most is how these laws affect actual residents day in and day out.
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