After the Supreme Court’s historic 5-4 decision today striking down the constitutionality of The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), married gay couples can enjoy many of the same benefits and legal recognitions of their heterosexual counterparts. This is news worth celebrating, since it’s not only a historic step toward equality, but also of great benefit to gays’ financial futures.
Some of the immediate benefits include the ability for married couples to file taxes jointly and an elimination or reduction of the estate and gift taxes — all of which can result in thousands in savings.
It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that DOMA’s repeal currently only benefits same-sex couples in states that already legally recognize such marriages. Still, because more states are likely to approve gay unions in the coming months and years — and further Supreme Court decisions may emerge — non-married gay couples should take action to protect joint finances.
Here’s what gay couples should do to take advantage of their new protections:
Create a Will
It sounds simple (and perhaps a little morbid), but many gay couples haven’t yet contemplated what will happen to their estate upon their passing. That’s a shame, because it was at the heart of the issue that brought the landmark DOMA case before the Supreme Court: The spouse of a deceased gay person was required to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional taxes because they weren’t an officially recognized spouse.
If you don’t have a will, get one – and make sure your spouse or domestic partner is listed as you wish. A living will is also useful if you intend for your spouse or partner to make decisions for you in the event of catastrophic illness, or if you wish to have them serve as executors of your estate/power of attorney.
Though the laws regarding domestic partner benefits are more nebulous, there is reason to believe benefits will soon (or eventually, anyway) be extended. Plus, even states that don’t yet recognize gay marriage may do so in the future. Consult with an attorney about the legal nuances here; you’ll want your will to have the best odds of treating your spouse or partner as the recipient of your inheritance (or whatever portion thereof you intend).
Notify Your Employer 401K and/or Insurers
Notifying your employer and/or insurers of your same-sex marriage or domestic partnership is important if you intend on sharing insurance benefits or listing a spouse or domestic partner as beneficiary.
The same applies for your 401K and IRA — make sure your loved one is listed as beneficiary, and update their status if you marry or enter a civil union. Inquire with your individual plans about their same-sex policies.
If you were already planning on doing so, getting married makes more sense than ever now, since you will receive the full protections under the law. Domestic partnership recognition offers weaker protections in some jurisdictions, so it’s to your advantage to marry, if possible. Even if you don’t live in a state that recognizes same-sex unions yet, it may be to your advantage to get married in one that does. That marriage may be recognized in your home state sooner rather than later, and the benefits of DOMA may even apply to you. (Such legal nuances have yet to be worked out. Stay tuned to the news and consult with an attorney, as needed.)
Create Joint Accounts
Creating or updating joint financial accounts — such as credit cards, brokerage accounts, and so forth — can establish a pattern of financial “legitimacy” that can be of benefit if you live in a state without strong same-sex union protections. If you already have such accounts, be certain to list your significant other as beneficiary. If you choose to marry out-of-state, it may be to your benefit to open joint accounts there, since those states may afford your account greater protections.
Update Your Mortgage or Lease
Ditto here for updating your mortgage or lease with your spouse’s or partner’s name and legal status, should you wish to share their associated priviliges and responsibiilities.
Tell Your Friends and Family
Make sure your immediate circle knows of your relationship status; in case anything happens to you, they can be aware of and support your wishes by corroborating your relationship’s significance.
Laws, right and responsibilities regarding gay unions are evolving rapidly, so stay informed. Most states’ ACLU websites can be of help, as can local gay rights organizations. Keep up to date on the important changes that impact your life together — and your pocketbook.
From the Five Ten Twenty Club, congrats on this historic win!