June 26, 2013

Supreme Court Strikes Down Defense of Marriage Act – Major Changes Predicted to Estate, Trust and Tax Law

Today, the United States Supreme Court issued a pair of rulings which greatly expand gay rights, striking down a 1996 federal law denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples and paving the way for California to legalize same-sex marriage.

In the California case, the Supreme Court ruled that opponents of same-sex marriage did not have standing to appeal a a lower-court ruling that overturned California’s ban. (A link to the decision can be found here.) Our first review of the ruling appears to remove legal obstacles to same-sex couples marrying in California, but the decision’s application to other states remains unclear at this time.

The decision on federal benefits was 5 to 4, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion, which four justices joined. (A link to this decision can be found here.)

Writing for the majority, Justice Kennedy wrote:  “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity . .  . . By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

What does this mean for same-sex married couples moving forward? To start, it now appears likely that for same-sex married couples in the 13 jurisdictions that permit same-sex marriage, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, those couples can now obtain the same federal and tax benefits, and engage in the same estate planning as opposite-sex married couples. 

Goodwin Weber PLLC is a boutique law firm with offices in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and New York City.  Three of our attorneys are also professors at prominent universities, teaching tax, accounting, and business law.  Our practice of law includes estate, trust, probate and tax matters.  We believe today’s twin decisions may have import on issues concerning federal benefits, estate taxes, and other major life decisions with significant economic consequence.  We invite you to contact our firm for a free initial consultation to discuss how our attorneys can assist you in planning for your future.