Last week, in a decision titled Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, decided that it was unconstitutional for states to ban same sex marriages. At first glance, many Marylanders interested in a same sex marriage may believe that this ruling does not affect them since marriage equality has existed in Maryland since January 1, 2013, because of Maryland’s Civil Protection Act. While the Obergefell case had a greater effect in the dozen or so jurisdictions where marriage equality did not exist prior to the case, this ruling will have a profound effect on Marylanders.
First, one dramatic change is the recognition of same sex marriages in all states. Prior to this ruling a person in a same sex marriage in Maryland may not have had their marriage recognized by other states. This means that if a spouse in a same sex marriage gets sick in another state, the medical systems in that state would be required to treat that person as a spouse for purposes of providing information and allowing visiting access. Previously, some states may not have done so. James Obergefell, who this case is named after, is a perfect example of this discrimination.
Mr. Obergefell was engaged to a Mr. Arthur, who was sick and dying of ALS in Ohio. They decided to travel to Maryland for the purpose of marrying. Because Mr. Arthur was so sick, he could not move and the parties were married on a plane on the tarmac at BWI. Several months later, Mr. Arthur died. Under Ohio law, even though the parties were married in Maryland, Ohio refused to list Mr. Obergefell as Mr. Arthur’s surviving spouse on his birth certificate. Justice Kennedy, who wrote this landmark decision remarked “they must remain strangers even in death, a state-imposed separation Obergefell deems hurtful for the rest of time.” As a result of this case, this form of discrimination is no longer allowed in this country. This case also has many practical effects on any individual in or preparing to enter a same sex relationship.
For example, the filing of tax returns for many people may be significantly easier. A couple of years ago, the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbade same sex couples from filing returns jointly. The Defense of Marriage Act had the effect of causing homosexual couples to pay a larger share of the tax burden, since they were unable to file jointly. Some states other than Maryland even required homosexual couples who filed joint federal returns after the Defense of Marriage Act had been deemed unconstitutional to file split state tax returns. Now, all married couples will be required to file tax returns either as married filed jointly, or married filed individually. It may even be beneficial for some people to amend previous tax returns , if it would be to their benefit. These are matters that all same sex couples should discuss with their accountant.
In addition to tax benefits, there are an assortment of other federal benefits and privileges that occur because a party is married. If one spouse is ill, the other spouse may be able to take leave pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act. People may find that it is beneficial to be on their spouse’s healthcare instead of healthcare offered through their employer because it is less expensive, or provides better coverage. Now, a spouse in many IRAs can be the sole primary beneficiary in case of the death of a spouse. Spouses may now be able to use each other’s Flexible Spending Accounts and Health Savings Accounts. Social Security Spousal benefits will be available to many people to whom they were not available before.
It is important for same sex couples to ensure that their estate plans are properly set up, so that property is titled properly, and property can be transferred in the most efficient way possible. It is also a good time for people to ensure that their Powers of Attorney and Health Care Directives are up to date.
Most importantly, this Supreme Court decision states what many people already believed, that homosexual marriages are based on love and respect, and should be recognized by this country as such. As Justice Kennedy said in his conclusions “no union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that the do respect it, respect it so deeply that the seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.“