Earlier this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit struck down Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban, saying that withholding the fundamental right to marry from same-sex couples is a form of segregation that the Constitution cannot tolerate.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States in United States v. Windsor, held that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages and that it is up to state Legislatures to define marriage within state boundaries. Since then, numerous law-suits challenging the constitutionality of state DOMAs on equal protection and due process grounds have prevailed in various federal and state courts. Currently, 19 states, including California, plus the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage (recognition states), while 40 states prohibit it (non-recognition states).
The prevailing prediction is that a Supreme Court guarantee of a right to marriage is on its way. American support for same-sex marriage is at a new high of 55 percent, and California support is at 61 percent and increasing, if the trends continue. It is important for all couples to create an estate plan. Additionally, it is important for same-sex couples to be aware of the potentially complicated issues that arise when they move across state lines.
Same-Sex Couples Living in California
Same-sex married couples now living in California enjoy the same benefits and burdens under state and federal law as married opposite-sex couples. Before Windsor and IRS Revenue Ruling 2013-17 (which extended federal tax benefits to married same-sex couples, regardless of their state of residency), many married opposite-sex couples likely took this preferential treatment for granted.
Some of these benefits include:
- Property transferred between spouses incident to a divorce is not subject to income or gift tax;
- Spousal support (alimony) payments are tax deductible to the paying spouse;
- Child support payments are not subject to income tax;
- Spouses receive a community interest in 401(k) accounts and other retirement plans; and
- Spouses receive all community property and anywhere from one-third to all of the deceased spouse’s separate property for intestate (when a person dies without a will or other non-probate instrument) inheritance purposes.
All couples should be aware of their legal rights at marriage, divorce, and death. It is important for both same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples to consider pre-marital agreements, estate plans, and any tax consequences that arise from marriage or divorce.
The Marital Status of Migrating Same-Sex Couples
When a same-sex couple moves out of California, their marital status will depend on the other state’s law with regards to various issues including, state tax filing status, intestate succession, guardianship and conservatorship appointments, and adoption and artificial reproductive technologies. In other words, a non-recognition state may not recognize the otherwise valid same-sex marriage.
If and when the Supreme Court guarantees a right to marriage, moving across state lines will no longer be an issue for same-sex couples. However, in the interim, it is important to be aware of the possible legal consequences.
For example, under Florida law, the definition of “heir” does not include same-sex spouses for intestate inheritance purposes. This means that a same-sex couple that was married in California, but permanently living in Florida, will not inherit from each other under the Florida intestate system. Some courts in non-recognition states are willing to recognize same-sex marriage in certain contexts through the doctrine of comity, which is where a court gives deference to another state’s laws. However, most surviving spouses want to avoid litigation because it can be a headache, requiring time, money, and mental energy.
In some cases, it might be worthwhile for same-sex spouses to opt out of the intestate system with non-probate instruments, such as estate plans. A same-sex couple’s estate plan needs to be drafted with precision, specifically naming beneficiaries, rather than using general terms such as “spouse.” This becomes especially important if a same-sex couple moves to a non-recognition state, where the court may not interpret a same-sex spouse to qualify as a spouse or heir. If any other blood related heirs of the deceased spouse were to contest the non-probate instrument, they could end up inheriting property that would have gone to the same-sex spouse in California or another recognition state.
If you are a same-sex couple and are considering marriage, or need to create or update an estate plan, please contact our California Certified Family Law Specialists. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law and estate planning matters and offer a free consultation.
Please remember that each individual situation is unique and results discussed in this post are not a guarantee of future results. While this post may include legal issues, it is not legal advice. Use of this site does not create an attorney-client relationship.