There are hundreds of federal benefits, rights, and protections available to married couples and their children, regardless of whether they're same-sex or opposite-sex couples. These benefits include spousal Social Security eligibility, marital tax breaks, veterans benefits, and many others. But this wasn't always the case, even for same-sex couples who married legally prior to the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage.
In a pair of landmark decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the section of the Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as a "union between a man and a woman" was unconstitutional (United States v. Windsor) and that all states must allow same-sex couples to get married (Obergefell v. Hodges). Therefore, federal benefits for married couples are the same regardless of sexual orientation.
This article provides information about same-sex marriage and federal benefits, including a summary of restrictions and rules prior to marriage equality.
Same-Sex Marriage and Federal Benefits: Pre-Windsor
Prior to the Windsor decision, federal agencies determined a married couple's eligibility for benefits based on whether it recognized any validly performed same sex marriage. Agencies would look at the laws in the state where a couple lived to define marriage, specifically the "place of celebration" or "place of domicile."
Place of Celebration Rule
The "place of celebration" standard refers to the jurisdiction where the marriage was performed. If the marriage was performed in a place that recognized same-sex marriage, the couple was eligible for the same benefits as opposite-sex married couples. This was true even if the same sex couple later moved to a state that didn't allow same-sex marriage.
The place of celebration standard was used to determine eligibility for federal tax benefits, immigration status, and federal employee benefits.
Place of Domicile Rule
Other federal agencies applied a "place of domicile" rule. These agencies would only recognize marriages that were valid in a couple's place of residence when they were married or when they filed a claim.
The place of domicile rule was used to determine eligibility for Social Security benefits (including retirement benefits and disability insurance), Medicare, leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and veterans benefits.
Neither of these rules are currently in effect, since sexual orientation is no longer a barrier to marriage or marriage-related rights and benefits.
Same-Sex Marriage and Federal Benefits: A Primer
As mentioned in the introduction, married couples have the same access to federal benefits regardless of their sexual orientation. The following summarizes a few of these benefits.
Social Security Benefits
A married couple can benefit greatly from expanded Social Security benefit eligibility. Couples in a marriage may be eligible to collect survivor benefits should their spouse die, to collect retirement benefits based on their spouses' Social Security retirement payments, and to receive benefits as a dependant should a spouse become disabled.
In addition to married couples, the Social Security Administration has also extended eligibility to certain non-marital relationships, such as civil unions and domestic partnerships. Applicants are encouraged to apply for benefits even if they aren't sure if they're eligible. The date that you file can be used to determine when any potential benefits may start.
The IRS recognizes any marriage that was validly entered into in any jurisdiction. Married couples can benefit from federal estate and gift tax exemptions, may create family partnerships and life estate trusts, and may take advantage of federal estate planning benefits.
Benefits for veterans include insurance, educational assistance, and loans. VA loans may be available to assist qualifying veterans or surviving spouses in obtaining a home loan guaranty. In addition, burial benefits are available to all individuals in committed relationships, including same-sex couples who haven't gotten married.
Other Federal Benefits
Married couples also are eligible for certain immigration and federal employees' benefits. A U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident may petition for a family-based immigrant visa or fiancé(e)'s visa for his or her married or engaged foreign partner. The spouse of a federal government employee may be eligible for spousal health care, pension, leave and other benefits.
Get Legal Help With Same-Sex Marriage and Federal Benefits
Federal recognition of a marriage -- whether it's same-sex or opposite sex -- can impact everything from your taxes to your burial rights. Consider contacting a qualified attorney for help navigating the federal benefits, rights, and protections available to you or if believe you've been wrongly denied benefits.