IRS to recognize legal same-sex marriages nationwide

Policy change follows Supreme Court decision

  • A woman walks out of the Internal Revenue Service building in New York in this May 13, 2013 photo. Details of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration program that feeds tips to federal agents and then instructs them to alter the investigative trail were published in a manual used by agents of the Internal Revenue Service for two years.
A woman walks out of the Internal Revenue Service building in… (SHANNON STAPLETON / Reuters )
August 29, 2013|By Alexei Koseff and John Fritze, Tribune Newspapers

WASHINGTON — — Legally married same-sex couples will be recognized for federal tax purposes no matter what state they live in, the Internal Revenue Service and the Treasury Department announced Thursday.

The policy change follows the Supreme Court decision in June that overturned the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages for purposes such as insurance benefits, immigration and tax filings.

The new approach "provides access to benefits, responsibilities and protections under federal tax law that all Americans deserve," Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement. "This ruling also assures legally married same-sex couples that they can move freely throughout the country knowing that their federal filing status will not change."

For Dale Knight and his husband, the announcement has practical implications: The Ellicott City couple, married in January, has had to figure out how to split the mortgage deduction on their home — an issue that initially triggered an IRS audit.

The policy change also provides flexibility to allow them to join the other's health insurance plan without having to pay additional taxes.

"The other big thing is people should be able to feel like they can move — you don't have to only live in one of the states" that recognizes same-sex marriage, Knight said. "For some people, it's huge. It makes me happy for folks who are going to get some recognition even though their state may not be as far along as Maryland."

Maryland, 12 other states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples who were married in one of these jurisdictions or a foreign country but live in a state that does not recognize their marriage will be able to file federal taxes jointly.

Several Maryland lawmakers praised the announcement from the Obama administration.

"Federal recognition for all legally married same-sex couples for the purposes of tax filing has been long overdue," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, also a Democrat, called the policy change "an important step toward ensuring that all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation and where they reside, are entitled to equal protection under the law."

Thursday's decision represents a victory for same-sex couples who were left with unanswered questions after the Supreme Court decision. Chief among them was whether the federal government would recognize same-sex marriages even if a couple moved into a state that didn't.

Increasingly — and again in Thursday's announcement — the Obama administration has said it will honor those marriages, regardless of where a couple chooses to live.

"This is a really big deal for a lot of people who are, for instance, living in Virginia but who were married in D.C. or Maryland," said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland.

The change does not extend to same-sex couples who are in registered domestic partnerships, civil unions or other formal relationships recognized under state laws.

The Treasury Department said the ruling will apply for all federal tax purposes, including income, gift and estate taxes, and all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor, including filing status, dependency exemptions, employee benefits and individual retirement accounts.

Individuals who were in same-sex marriages also now have the option of filing amended tax returns for the past three years to reflect their married status.

Advocates of same-sex marriage immediately cheered the decision.

"This announcement makes today a day of celebration and relief for married same-sex couples all over America," Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said in a statement. "At long last, the IRS will treat them as what they are: married."

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy organization GLAAD called the ruling a move "one step closer to 'liberty and justice for all.'"

"Equal federal tax protections will not only endow legally married same-sex couples with the respect and dignity they deserve," spokesman Wilson Cruz said in a statement, "but will also provide critical financial security for countless loving families."

But the new federal tax policy "certainly does not end the complexities that exist because we have a patchwork of marriage laws in this country," according to Brian Moulton, legal director of the LGBT rights organization Human Rights Campaign.

Same-sex couples living in a jurisdiction that does not recognize their marriage would still have to file any state taxes separately.

And the exclusion of domestic partnerships and civil unions from the change should signal to states that those arrangements, "while positive steps for protecting those families, are not equality," Moulton said. "We encourage states that can to finish that journey" to legalizing same-sex marriage.

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