In yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court Opinion striking down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), Justice Anthony Kennedy outlined some of the federal marriage benefits that DOMA affected:
By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound. It prevents same-sex married couples from obtaining government healthcare benefits they would otherwise receive…It deprives them of the Bankruptcy Code’s special protections for domestic-support obligations…It forces them to follow a complicated procedure to file their state and federal taxes jointly…It prohibits them from being buried together in veteran’s cemeteries.
DOMA also brings financial harm to children of same-sex couples. It raises the cost of health care for families by taxing health benefits provided by employers to their workers’ same-sex spouses…And it denies or reduces benefits allowed to families upon the loss of a spouse and parent, benefits that are an integral part of a family security.
U.S. v. Windsor, 570 U.S. ___ (2013).
So, now that portions of DOMA have been overturned, are Florida same sex couples eligible for federal marriage benefits?
Unfortunately, as of now, there is no simple yes or no answer, but some things are clear and other things are less clear.
First, the U.S. Supreme Court did not strike down the entire DOMA. Section 2 of DOMA, which says that states do not need to recognize same sex marriages performed under the laws of another state or country, is still in effect. This means that if a gay couple gets married in New York, then move to Florida, then Florida is not required to recognize the validity of the New York same sex marriage. So no state marital benefits will be conferred on such couples.
Second, the ruling had no immediate effect on state DOMAs. So, pursuant to Florida’s Defense of Marriage Act, “the term ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the term ‘spouse’ applies only to a member of such a union.” This means that same sex couples still cannot get legally married in Florida or become eligible for federal marital benefits by entering into a union created in this state.
What is less clear is how same sex couples who are married outside of Florida but live in Florida will be treated by federal law. Part of the rationale in overturning portions of the federal DOMA was that federal law and state law should be internally consistent within a state. For example, since the minimum age of marriage in Vermont is 16, the federal government recognizes marriages of 16-year-olds in Vermont, and since the minimum age of marriage in New Hampshire is 13, the federal government recognizes marriages of 13-year-olds in New Hampshire. In contrast, even though New York recognized same sex marriages, under DOMA the federal government did not; and this internal inconsistency was struck down so marriage meant the same thing under federal and state law within New York.
However, the same rationale could be used to deny federal benefits to LGBT spouses who were married elsewhere but reside in Florida. Since state law does not recognize same sex marriage, it is possible that Florida same sex spouse spouses will not be eligible for tax and other federal marriage benefits that heterosexual married couples receive.
Whether or not Florida same sex spouses receive federal benefits mainly depends on how the Obama administration and federal agencies choose to interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling. If the Obama administration decides that the ruling only applied to same sex spouses living in states that recognize marriage equality, then Florida LGBT spouses will not receive federal benefits. If, on the other hand, President Obama and the federal agencies take the more expansive view that the ruling applies to federal benefits for married couples regardless of state of residency, then Florida same sex spouses could be receiving the same federal marriage benefits as heterosexual spouses in the very near future.
If you want to learn more about your Florida family and marital law rights, schedule a consultation with a Tampa Bay family law attorney by calling The Law Firm of Adam B. Cordover, P.A., at (813) 443-0615 or fill out our online form.