The Supreme Court heard arguments last week regarding the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The legal arguments focused primarily on the 10th amendment and the freedom of individual states to choose how to define marriage. Ending DOMA would mean that the federal government would recognize any union that an individual state recognizes. For instance, a same-sex married couple from Massachusetts would be treated as a “married couple” under federal law. As the law stands now, that same-sex married couple from Massachusetts is not recognized as married under federal law.
The impact of DOMA on same-sex married couples is vast. DOMA prevents these couples from enjoying federal pension benefits, immigration benefits, gift and estate tax benefits, income tax benefits and many other things that opposite-sex married persons enjoy. Another important impact of DOMA is the effect on estate planning for same-sex married couples.
An opposite-sex married couple’s estate plan is usually pretty straightforward. They create a joint trust, execute some Power of Attorneys and Advance Health Care directives and reciprocal wills. However, estate planning for a same-sex couple is much more complicated. If a same-sex married couple creates a joint trust there are various legal and tax hurdles to overcome. Since the federal government does not recognize the couple as “married” any gifts made between the couple will be subject to federal gift taxes. When the couple funds the joint trust with assets they must trace the genesis of the assets. If one partner contributes more than the other, then there may be some gift tax complications. Furthermore, the Trust would require its own Taxpayer Identification Number since a same-sex couple could not use one of their Social Security Numbers as the identifier for joint assets.
Ending DOMA would simplify estate planning for same-sex couples. There would be less ambiguity about the types and consequences of various estate planning instruments. The same-sex married couple would be treated identical to the opposite-sex married couple.