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Challenges To DOMA May Lead To Changes In Same-Sex Couple Tax Planning

As challenges to DOMA keep mounting, the status of tax planning for LGBT couples find itself in a state of flux.  DOMA, fully known as the Defense of Marriage Act, is a 1996 federal law that defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman.  Under the law, no U.S. state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage from another state and same-sex marriage is not recognized for all federal purposes, including for tax purposes.   The Obama administration has previously announced that it will no longer defend legal challenges to DOMA in federal court, and the past couple of weeks have seen DOMA successfully challenged in the Northern District of California as well as the U.S. Appeals Court in Boston.

It is easy to overlook all of the federal tax benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy which are not currently allowed to same-sex couples.  Some of the more well-known examples include:

  • Same-sex couples cannot file joint tax returns.
  • Same-sex couples cannot deduct spousal support payments which are mandated by a state divorce decree from their federal taxes.
  • Same-sex couples do not enjoy the unlimited spousal gifting exemption afforded under the Internal Revenue Code.  Gifts between same-sex spouses above the current $13,000 annual limit generally either incur gift tax or reduce the lifetime gift tax exemption of the giftor.
  • Same-sex spouses are not entitled to unlimited martial estate tax deduction when they inherit their spouse’s estate.  Currently, a same-sex partner must pay estate tax on any inheritance above $5 million.  This amount will drop to $1 million on January 1, 2013 of Congress takes no action and the Bush tax cuts expire.

The U.S Supreme Court will no doubt have to take up the DOMA issue soon, and should DOMA be found unconstitutional, the tax planning options for LGBT couples will no doubt see some significant changes shortly thereafter.