On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. This ruling gives same sex couples who are legally married equal rights to the same federal benefits previously reserved only for opposite sex couples.
The Defense of Marriage Act was adopted in 1996 to deny all benefits to same sex couples whose marriage was not considered legal under federal law. Only marriages between a man and a woman as husband and wife were considered legal. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in two same sex marriage cases, U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, and the decision finally came down.
The case of U.S. v. Windsor involved estate taxes. Edith Windsor’s wife, Thea Spyer, passed away in 2009 and the Internal Revenue Service subsequently sent an estate tax bill of $363,000. Ms. Windsor and Thea Spyer were married under the laws of the state of New York after a 40 year relationship. Because of DOMA, the marriage was not considered lawful under federal law and therefore when Ms. Spyer died in 2009 and her estate passed to Ms. Windsor, there was an estate tax due. If the marriage was recognized under federal law, then there would not have been any tax due when Ms. Spyer died due to the unlimited marital deduction. Transfers to a U.S. Citizen spouse are not subject to estate tax on the death of the first spouse.
Justice Kennedy spoke for the 5-4 majority and reasoned that DOMA violated the right to liberty and to equal protection for gay couples. Justices Roberts, Scalia, Alito and Thomas dissented. One provision of DOMA that was not ruled on is the current situation that no state is required to recognize gay marriages performed in any other state. This issue was not before the Court.
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