While the case of United States v. Windsor in 2013 required the Federal government to recognize the marriage of a same-sex couple if the marriage was legal where performed, states were not required to permit same-sex marriage, nor were they required to recognize legal marriages of same-sex couples performed elsewhere. However, with last week’s Supreme Court decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, states are now required to permit same-sex couples to be married, and furthermore must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and jurisdictions.
The Supreme Court’s decision creates several immediate new planning opportunities for same-sex married couples, particularly those who were previously married in another state but have been recently living in a state that did not recognize (or one of the 13 that outright banned) their marriage. Those couples will now be able to do everything from filing joint income tax returns, to benefit from the marital deduction for state estate and inheritance tax purposes, to get divorced if the couple decides to separate. In fact, for many such couples, a major planning issue will simply be unwinding the strategies previously in place to handle the fact that their marriage wasn't recognized, but are no longer necessary!
Perhaps most financially significant, though, is that same-sex married couples will now be able to claim spousal and survivor benefits as a married couple, regardless of their current state of residence. This creates both immediate Social Security claiming opportunities for some same-sex couples, and the need to plan more proactively for a same-sex married couples’ Social Security benefits in the future, as all the claiming strategies for married couples – including file-and-suspend and restricted application – are now available.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court decision actually makes financial planning for same-sex couples far simpler in the future – or at least, no more complicated than the conversations that arise when any couple is considering whether to marry, and how it might impact them from income tax planning to financial aid to estate planning and everything in between. In fact, as the legal differences for marriage between same-sex and heterosexual couples shrink to almost nothing, it remains to be seen whether LGBT planning will even remain as a distinct ‘niche’ amongst financial advisors - as while potential discrimination against gays and lesbians remains an issue, equal marital rights appears to be eliminating most of the need or relevance of ‘specialized’ LGBT financial planning in the first place?