The time has finally come. On March 27th, the Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of DOMA. Many have come forward over the last year in support of overturning the Act. Support has ranged from progressive LGBT rights advocates to President Barack Obama himself. Most recently Bill Clinton, the man who signed DOMA into law in the first place, has come forward.
When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that “enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.” Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.
So, what if it is overturned? How would such a decision impact same-sex married couples’ tax position and how long will it take for those changes to take place? Frankly, I expect the implementation be slow and burdensome. The IRS made a small change for a small portion of same-sex coupled taxpayers three years ago and we still don’t have official rules.
Not only will it take time for Congress to amend laws and regulations, it will take the IRS time to amend tax forms and procedural guidelines. Furthermore, if spouse is no longer defined to only include opposite sex partners but applies to all couples who have a valid marriage, how will “valid marriage” be defined and how will the IRS know who has one? The easy answer would be any couple married in a legal marriage state. Only it’s not that simple, is it? Many couples hold marriage licenses from legal marriage states but live in states without same-sex marriage. The issue is further convoluted when considering the varying recognition laws in each state.
I can only hope that the fall of DOMA will lead to blanket legal marriage across all states. Until then, I truly don’t understand how the IRS will determine which couples have the right to file jointly and I fear that they are no better prepared for such a change than they were for community property income splitting. I suppose the upside of this is that the delay in implementation will provide same-sex married couple taxpayers ample time for tax planning.
Just as it is with community property income splitting, the change will benefit some taxpayers and harm others. For those of you that will not see a tax benefit from joint filing it may behoove you to start planning now. For those that will benefit, the question of amended returns arises. If DOMA is ruled unconstitutional it means it was always unconstitutional. To me, this suggests the right to amend prior year returns with married filing jointly status in order to cash in on the refunds you should have already received.
Only time will tell how this will all unfold, but my fingers are crossed. I am grateful to witness and be part of such inspiring and historic accomplishments in equal rights.