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After DOMA Ruling, Government Scrambles To Adjust

Naomi Hendrix (right) and Rio Waller exchange their wedding vows in a small garden across from the Fresno County Clerk's office in California on Monday.
Gosia Wozniacka
Naomi Hendrix (right) and Rio Waller exchange their wedding vows in a small garden across from the Fresno County Clerk's office in California on Monday.

At gay pride events throughout the country last weekend, marchers celebrated the Supreme Court's ruling striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Now, the rainbow flags are giving way to calculators and sharp pencils, as gay and lesbian couples start to grapple with the practical impact of what the ruling means for them.

President Obama has directed Cabinet members to implement the ruling "swiftly and smoothly" by extending federal recognition to same-sex marriages for the first time. But that will be easier for some federal agencies than others.

The ink was barely dry on last week's historic decision when tax adviser Tina Salandra, a CPA in New York City, started hearing from her gay and lesbian clients.

"Many of my clients have emailed me, and their question is: Should I file an amended return? Should we file an amended return?" Salandra says. "And my answer to them is we need to really look at their tax situation and whether or not it will be beneficial."

Couples who married in New York or one of the dozen other states that allow same-sex weddings can now file joint tax returns with the federal government. In some cases, in which that saves money, couples may want to go back and file for three previous years.

"For couples where you have a single wage earner, a stay-at-home parent or a very low wage earner, 'married filing jointly' could be very much a benefit and, therefore, those couples would want to do an amended tax return," Salandra says.

For couples who live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, this and hundreds of other federal benefits should soon flow automatically. But for others, the situation is more complicated.

Salandra has many gay clients who married in New York but live in neighboring New Jersey, where same-sex marriage is not recognized. That's a challenge, she says, because tax status is normally dictated by the state where you live.

"This is very new territory for the IRS, where marriage is not recognized in every state," Salandra says.

The IRS says it is "reviewing" the Supreme Court ruling, and it promises revised guidance "in the near future."

Those rules could be changed administratively. Obama has already made his opinion clear.

"It's my personal belief — but I'm speaking now as a president as opposed to as a lawyer — that if you've been married in Massachusetts and you move someplace else, you're still married," Obama has said.

Already the Defense Department and the agency that oversees the federal workforce have said they plan to offer full employment benefits to married same-sex couples, no matter where they live. The Department of Homeland Security will also grant permanent visas to the foreign-born spouses of U.S. citizens, even if they live in a state where same-sex marriage isn't recognized.

That's a relief to Inger Knudson, who married her British wife in Iowa last year but lives in Colorado, where their same-sex marriage isn't recognized. After spending a fortune on plane tickets and long-distance phone calls, Knudson is looking forward to sponsoring her wife for a permanent resident visa.

"This is a monumental change in our future, and I am so grateful," Knudson says. "I haven't the words to express how much better, already, our lives are."

While immigration law focuses only on the state where a couple got married, Social Security pays attention to the state where a couple lives. That could pose a problem for gay couples living in states that don't recognize their marriages. And it could take an act of Congress, not just a presidential order, to change the Social Security rules.

Brian Moulton, legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, says that's a drawback of the current patchwork system. In a society as mobile as ours, he argues, marriage licenses should be portable.

"Same-sex married couples shouldn't be restricted from doing the things that heterosexual married folks do — like retiring to another state or moving for work or family purposes — because they're worried that crossing state lines means suddenly they'll lose out on important federal benefits and protections," Moulton says.

Of course, there are costs to marriage, as well as benefits. Some married couples will end up paying more in taxes. And Moulton says some will find a spouse's income disqualifies them for means-tested programs like Medicaid.

"The reality of your marriage being recognized is that there are both benefits and obligations," he says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.