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Married And Gay? How Post-DOMA Laws Will Impact Your Finances

Emerging laws following the overturn of DOMA are rapidly changing personal finance for married gay and lesbians couples. Here are the big things you need to know.

4655027248_e2ba017512_zWhen the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act in June, it tipped the first in a long line of dominoes that will affect the finances of gay couples for many years to come. The trouble is, even the most savvy financial advisors don’t (and can’t) know what it all means.

There are two reasons for this. First, new rulings based on the court action are still coming down from government agencies; and second, no one knows quite when the flurry of pronouncements will end.

“It’s overwhelming, and it’s going to continue to change as new interpretations on benefits will keep coming out,” says Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CFP, senior vice president of Charles Schwab & Co. and president of the non-profit Charles Schwab Foundation. “And when the IRS came back with their August 29 interpretation, it meant that same-sex couples are treated the same as married couples for federal taxes, regardless of where they live.”

Federal taxes

Schwab-Pomerantz is talking about Revenue Ruling 2013-17, a 15-page document by IRS legal eagles Richard S. Goldstein and Matthew S. Cooper. While short by IRS standards, the ruling has monumental implications for gay couples. Basically, it states that if you have a legally recognized marriage as a gay couple, you are entitled to the same filing options as heterosexual married couples — even if the state you live in doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

“So if you are legally married in California and move to Georgia, you still get those benefits,” Schwab-Pomerantz says. “You can file jointly or separately, which some married couples do. And if you file jointly and there’s a benefit, you can amend your taxes going back three years.”

But Schwab-Pomerantz also stresses that the tax benefits here aren’t automatic; if you want them, you’ve got to take action.

So if you’re gay and married, talk to your accountant or financial advisor immediately: You could recover thousands of dollars. Start by pulling your federal tax returns for three years prior, and work the figures again to see if filing jointly produces a significant difference in the final outcome. If so, you’ll want to file a Form 1040X for each amended tax year.

That said, filing jointly doesn’t always mean your combined tax bill will go down. “In fact, it could actually go up if both partners earn a substantial and similar amount of money,” Schwab-Pomerantz says. “Make sure you run the numbers for both scenarios before making a decision.” (In case you’re wondering, the IRS will not come after you if your tax liability would prove greater by retroactively filing jointly.)

Finally, the IRS line is fairly clear: The new ruling does not apply to registered domestic partners, civil unions or other relationships recognized under state law but not considered a legal marriage. And going forward, gay married couples must indicate on their tax forms whether they are married filing jointly or married filing separately.

State taxes

Less clear, though, is what happens with state tax returns. Of all the states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage, 28 impose a state income tax of some form, according to Accounting Today. How those states will move forward can only be forecast in the most general sense. Some might take their cues directly from the IRS ruling, while others might have to consider overhauling their tax laws to allow joint state returns. And that could represent a political hot potato in those states where gay marriage is strongly opposed.

Retirement accounts and Social Security

Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage, and it’s already clear that as one federal agency rules, another might go in a different direction. While it doesn’t affect the Money Under 30 age demographic so much, Social Security benefits aren’t following the IRS example. The benefits now extended to gay married couples only apply to those living in states where same-sex marriages are permitted.

Checking and tweaking your retirement packages, however, is of paramount importance, for gay couples and straight ones as well. Depending on when you got married, your retirement packages may specify a different beneficiary — a parent or a previous spouse, for example — and so Schwab-Pomerantz sees this as an ideal time to check those accounts.

“You absolutely need to make sure your beneficiary forms for IRA and 401(k) are up to date,” she says. “If it’s something you’ve forgotten to change, do it to protect your loved ones.” In addition, consider other connected needs, including making a will and signing an advance healthcare directive. “Speak with an attorney about your financial decisions before you’re really protected.”

No matter the current circumstance, the shifting nature of the financial-legal landscape for young gay married couples means staying attentive. Schwab-Pomerantz says proactive couples will reap the rewards first, especially if they alert their advisors about changes they’ve heard about through the media and other outlets.

“Do your homework because as up-to-date as a financial advisor can be, things can change the next day,” she says. “Talk to your friends in the same situation. Check in on websites such as irs.gov to stay up to date. We’re getting new interpretations all the time, so keep an eye out.”

Just as married couples join hands and hearts, they must combine their minds to make the commitment last. The changes in federal law stemming from the Supreme Court decision now give gay marrieds options they’ve never had before, yet that doesn’t necessarily make the task fiscal unity with your partner any easier. Here’s an invitation, then, to start those money conversations you’ve been delaying because of busy lives or anticipated friction.

True, it’s not as romantic as a dinner date or a beach getaway. But given the choice between “for richer” and “for poorer,” we’d much rather see you emerge on the former half of the equation.

Published or updated on September 12, 2013

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About Lou Carlozo

Based in Chicago, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor for Reuters Money, a columnist with DealNews.com, and a former managing editor at AOL's WalletPop.com. Contact him with story ideas for Money Under 30 at feedbacker@aol.com, or follow him via LinkedIn and Twitter (@LouCarlozo63).


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Anne Schumacher says:

    Thanks to Money Under 30 and Lou for posting this article. Staying on top of the rule changes and deciphering what it all means for my wife and I while living in an unsupportive state has certainly been challenging. This article nails the important issues we have been discussing and we’re certainly grateful for the tips!

  2. Mike says:

    Thanks for sharing this! My partner and I will be shortly getting a marriage license out of the state as his country gov’t employer will now treat us equally, allowing us to reap the benefits of his health insurance program. We will have a health reimbursement account that is 100% employer funded (he already has this but married couples/families get more) that is vested and may roll over after 4 years. I will be dropping my current insurance w/ my employer as soon as open enrollment comes up as our marriage is not a qualifying event with the state of Florida for me to drop my insurance, although through the county my partner works for, it would be qualifying. Needless to say, we are getting the real thing next month after having a ceremony earlier in the year.

  3. Adam Porter says:

    Thanks for this article, Lou. My partner and I were just talking about this 2 nights ago. We live in Indiana and we’re not married yet, so this’ll be a good reference as we move forward.

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