Massachusetts became the first state in the union to declare marriage legal for same-sex couples in 2004 when the Supreme Judicial Court declared limiting the issuance of marriage licenses was unconstitutional under the Commonwealth’s constitution. While this ruling effectively ensured the same rights to same-sex couples under state law, it further emphasized the on-going discriminatory treatment by the federal government.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision, United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. __, No. 12-307 (June 26, 2013), struck down Section 3 of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Court held that the IRS’s denial of an estate tax marital deduction to the surviving spouse of a lesbian couple under the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, all married couples in Massachusetts–including same-sex couples–must now also be treated by the federal government as married. The decision stands for the proposition that all marriages be treated equally, with all of the same federal rights, benefits, and responsibilities. This landmark decision is expected to bring about further change in the way other federal benefits are administered.
While the federal government will still need to work out many details in the administration of its various agencies and benefit programs, those programs as relate to Massachusetts residents, and specifically, same-sex couples married in the Commonwealth have now been clarified by the Supreme Court. Application of estate planning principles to same-sex married couples has now become easier: we apply the same strategies as we would to any other married couple.
But, as with other couples, it is still crucial to put an estate plan together early in order to take advantage of its benefits.