Ruling Clears The Way For More Benefits For Same-Sex Couples

For some couples, the Supreme Court's ruling to strike down part of the Defense of Marriage Act will have significant financial impact. The amount of federal income tax they pay could go down, and their health insurance and other benefits could be affected too.

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As Nina just mentioned, same-sex couples could see new benefits quickly now that DOMA has been overturned. These include tax breaks, lower health care costs and new access to Social Security benefits. Here's NPR's Wendy Kaufman.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Massachusetts residents Kathy Bush and Mary Ritchie have been together for more than 20 years, and they've been legally married under state law since 2004. But until now, the federal government didn't recognize that marriage. Ritchie, who's a detective lieutenant for the state police, says they learned of the high court ruling as they watched their younger son graduate from middle school.

LIEUTENANT MARY RITCHIE: Now we can go on, just like every other married couple, and we'll have all of the same benefits and penalties and obligations and responsibilities that everybody else has when we talk about marriage. And to have it happen on our son's graduation day just made it even more special.

KAUFMAN: Like many other same-sex couples, Ritchie and Bush paid more in federal income tax than a straight couple would have - by their estimate, about $40,000 more since 2004.

RITCHIE: Just checking that little box made all that difference. Yeah, that could, you know, help with household expenses, you know, put money towards our sons' college, you know, funds. All of that we haven't been able to do.

KAUFMAN: Now they can amend their tax returns, says Janis Cowhey McDonagh of the Marcum accounting firm.

JANIS COWHEY MCDONAGH: Whatever returns you've filed in the last three years, you can go back and amend. It's a computation, and it's not always clear-cut whether you will save money, but it's definitely worth looking into.

KAUFMAN: Married same-sex couples also stand to benefit when it comes to estate taxes. Indeed, that was the very issue that brought DOMA to the Supreme Court. There are numerous other financial benefits that many married same-sex couples will now get. For those who marry, live and work in states that honor their marriage, a lot of this will be fairly straightforward. For starters, they'll be able to get health insurance on the same basis as other married couples. eBay's Jack Christin, Jr. says right now...

JACK CHRISTIN, JR.: ...when a same-sex spouse of an employee at our company receives medical benefits through eBay, they have to pay taxes on those benefits.

KAUFMAN: Taxes that straight couples don't have to pay. To make things equitable, eBay reimburses employees for those taxes. It not only costs the company more money, but lawyer Christin says it's an administrative burden.

JR.: It actually requires us to send two paychecks to that impacted employee: one for their wages and benefits, and then a separate paycheck to cover the taxes.

KAUFMAN: Now he says eBay shouldn't have to do that. The company was among more than 200 major employers - including Apple, Citicorp, Levi Strauss and Marriott - that asked the court to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Overturning DOMA also means changes for federal employees. Susan Sommer is with the civil rights group Lambda Legal.

SUSAN SOMMER: There will be substantial new protections extended to the greatest number of workers in our country.

KAUFMAN: She cites federal health insurance, of course, but also life insurance benefits and access to family medical leave, more broadly and beyond employer-provided benefits. Yesterday's ruling means that legally married same-sex couples should be eligible for Social Security benefits, pension and retirement benefits, protection under bankruptcy laws and much more. But there are still unsettled issues. For example, what is the status of same-sex couples who live in a state where gay marriage is banned, but travel to where it's legal and get married there? Will the federal government consider them married? The Obama administration says it plans to move quickly to amend rules and regulations to so that same-sex couples can get the full benefits of marriage. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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