August 30, 2013Client Alert

Treasury Department Recognizes All Legal Marriages for Tax Purposes

On August 29, 2013, the Treasury Department issued Revenue Ruling 2013-17, Internal Revenue Bulletin 2013-38, which states that same-sex couple legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriage will be treated as married for ALL federal tax purposes. As a result, legally married same-sex couples are treated the same as legally married opposite-sex couples for federal tax purposes if the state of ceremony of their marriage recognizes same-sex marriage even if their state of residence does not recognize same-sex marriage.

This Ruling has significant impact for legally married same-sex couples and their tax advisors. However, it does not impact state law rules regarding the definition of marriage and may complicate income tax filings for same-sex couples legally married but living in a state that does not yet recognize their marriage, like Wisconsin and Illinois.

Background Leading Up to the Ruling

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was enacted by President Clinton in 1996. Section Two of DOMA says states do not have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Section Three of DOMA defined marriage for all federal purposes as only between one man and one woman.

On June 26, 2013, in Windsor v. United States (Windsor), the United States Supreme Court held that Section Three of DOMA was unconstitutional. Therefore, any same-sex married couple that lives in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage is to be treated the same for all purposes as any other married couple, and thereby are entitled to all of the 1,138 rights and privileges under federal law that are granted to married persons, which includes federal tax law.

Section Two of DOMA was unaffected by Windsor. Therefore, a same-sex couple that marries in one of the thirteen states that recognizes same-sex marriage who then moves to one of the thirty-seven states that does not recognize same-sex marriage would not be treated as married if the state of residence determines whether a couples is considered married, as opposed to the state of ceremony determining if a couple is married.

Absent guidance from the Treasury Department, a same-sex couple legally married in a recognition jurisdiction who then move to a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, would most likely not be treated as married for federal tax law purposes. This is because the majority of federal tax laws are determined by a couple’s state of residence, not the state of ceremony of their marriage.

State of Ceremony Versus State of Residence

Consider the following examples to illustrate Windsor and this Ruling:

Britney and Jason are married in a drive-through chapel by an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas and then go home to California. Their opposite-sex marriage is recognized for federal tax law purposes in California (and all other states) because California recognizes legal Nevada marriages. Sadly, Britney and Jason’s marriage only lasted 55 hours.

Mitchell and Cam are a same-sex couple married in New York (New York being a state of ceremony that recognizes same-sex marriage) and move back to Milwaukee (Wisconsin being a state of residence that does not recognize same-sex marriage). Prior to the Revenue Ruling, Mitchell and Cam are not married for federal law purposes, even though their marriage would be recognized if they stayed in New York. This is because Article Two of DOMA says that Wisconsin does not have to recognize New York marriages.

After the Revenue Ruling, with an effective date after September 16, 2013, Mitchell and Cam in Wisconsin will be treated as married for federal tax law purposes just like Britney and Jason in California. Mitchell and Cam will be able to utilize all federal tax laws Britney and Jason would be able to utilize (if Britney and Jason had respected the sanctity of their marriage).

Federal Tax Impact of Ruling

As a result of the Revenue Ruling, regardless of a couple’s state of residence, if they are married in a state that legally recognizes their marriage, the couple will be entitled to the following federal tax law benefits (among others): filing status as married filing jointly, claiming personal and dependency exemptions, taking the standard deduction, employee benefits, contributing to an IRA, spousal rollovers of IRA’s, unlimited marital deduction for estate and gift tax purposes, gift tax splitting, and estate tax exemption portability.

The Revenue Ruling does not apply to registered domestic partnerships, civil unions, or similar formal relationships recognized under state law that are not considered “marriage” under state law.

Legally married same-sex couples must file their 2013 income tax returns as either “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately.” They may also, but are not required to, file amended returns for open years (generally 2010, 211, and 2012) to be treated as married for federal tax law purposes. 

Also, if an employee purchased health insurance coverage from their employer on an after-tax basis for their same-sex spouse, they may now treat the amounts paid for that coverage as pre-tax and excludable from their income, and file amended returns for a refund for open years. Further, if their employer paid Medicare and Social Security tax on those taxable benefits to the employee, the employer may file for a refund for both the employee and employer portions of those overpayments for open years.

Continuing Issues in Non-Recognition States

As of August 30, 2013, the District of Columbia and thirteen states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) recognize same-sex marriage. Therefore, clients who get married in those states or have employees who get married in those states, but subsequently reside in a non-recognition state, need to be aware of the new federal tax law benefits and obligations.

Even though married same-sex couples may now file as “married filing jointly” for federal income tax purposes, states like Wisconsin and Illinois that do not recognize same-sex marriage would still require those couples to either file as single or as married filing separately on their federal returns. This is because most state income tax forms use federal income tax amounts as the starting point for preparing the state return, and most state returns require the federal return to be attached to the state return. Without further guidance from state tax authorities, this could complicate income tax filings for same-sex married couples in non-recognition states.

Estate, gift, and generation skipping transfer tax laws now treat all legally married same-sex couples the same as opposite-sex couples, but, like opposite-sex couples, the Revenue Ruling does not mitigate the need for same-sex married couples to prepare estate plans. Many property law issues are driven by whether someone is classified as a “spouse” under state law, including who inherits under intestacy and other survivorship rights, all of which can be controlled by a will or trust in non-recognition states (like Wisconsin and Illinois). Finally, some states (like Illinois) have state estate and gift tax exemptions that are lower than the current federal estate and gift tax exemptions, which requires careful estate tax planning for all married couples, be they opposite-sex or same-sex.

The impact of Windsor and how same-sex couples are recognized for federal and state laws is a fast changing arena, and additional federal and state guidance will be required.
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