Is the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision good for senior citizens?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 26, 2013 stating that a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional means that same-sex couples (in states that legally recognize their marriages) can receive federal benefits and protections that they were previously unable to receive.  This includes Social Security survivor and spousal benefits, Medicare spousal benefits and Medicaid’s long-term care spousal impoverishment protections.  However, the Court did not address the eligibility for federal benefits and protections of couples who are legally married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage and move to a state that does not.

In states which recognize same-sex couples (which include CaliforniaConnecticutDelawareIowaMaineMarylandMassachusettsMinnesotaNew HampshireNew YorkRhode IslandVermont, and Washington, the District of Columbia, and five Native American tribes), the federal benefits and protections which senior clients can now take advantage of include Social Security and survivor benefits, Supplemental Security Income, Medicare benefits, Veterans benefits and Medicaid spousal impoverishment protections.  The downside to this is that, because one’s eligibility for certain benefits (such as SSI, Medicaid and VA benefits) depends on the entire family’s income and assets, some that are previously eligible for benefits, may lose their benefits if their spouse has substantially more income or assets.

At issue in the case before the Supreme Court was a same-sex couple’s rights to leave all their assets to their living spouse without having to pay federal estate taxes at the death of the first spouse.  With the Supreme Court’s decision, same-sex couples may now claim an unlimited marital deduction and can also transfer assets to each other without having to pay gift taxes.  They will also be able to rollover the deceased spouses’s retirement accounts without being subject to payment of taxes.

Unfortunately for Florida, the case before the Supreme Court did not challenge the provision of DOMA that says no state must recognize a same-sex marriage from another state.  There are 39 states which have passed laws stating that marriages is only between “one man and one woman” and in some cases explicitly stating that other marriages will not be honored.  Sixty-two percent of the citizens of Florida voted for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions on November 6, 2008.  Thus, if a couple marries in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, and then moves to Florida, some federal rights and benefits allowed to married couples may not apply to them because different federal agencies and programs follow different standards in determining who is married.  What does this mean?  Some federal agencies, such as the IRS, Social Security Administration and Veterans’ Administration require that, in order for the couple to obtain benefits, the marriage must be recognized in the place where the couple is living in order for them to be eligible for the benefit.

It seems to me that the Supreme Court will most likely be asked to decide, in the future, whether a state’s laws banning gay marriage are unconstitutional, as this ruling will open the door for further lawsuits.  For a specific list of the ways this ruling will affect same-sex couples in states that already have laws allowing same-sex marriages, click here.