What Are the Tax Implications of the Supreme Court Ruling on Marriage Equality?


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The Supreme Court’s decisions striking down the law banning federal recognition of gay marriages, as well as the Court’s decision to not rule on the California ban on gay marriage that the state government has decided not to enforce, make our nation’s tax system fairer and are expected to reduce the federal deficit.

Up until the Supreme Court's ruling, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevented the recognition of same-sex marriage for the purposes of more than 1,100 different federal laws, including many tax provisions that consider marriage status when determining an individual’s rights and responsibilities. For example, the original petitioner in the Supreme Court case challenging DOMA, United States v. Windsor, Edith Windsor was forced to pay an additional $363,053 more in federal estate taxes because her same-sex marriage was not recognized for the “surviving spouse” estate tax exemption. Because of the Supreme Court ruling in her favor, however, the IRS will have to pay Windsor back the $363,053 taxes she paid originally, plus interest.

Windsor’s windfall notwithstanding, the overall effect of recognizing gay marriage is likely to reduce the federal deficit. A 2004 report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that if the federal government recognized gay marriages performed in all the states, revenues would increase by around $400 million a year and outlays would decrease by $100 million to $200 million a year. These are relatively small numbers in the context of the federal budget, and the effect of this week’s rulings will be smaller because the Court ruled that the federal government must recognize gay marriages only in the minority of jurisdictions that have legalized it. (Currently, only 31 percent of the US population lives in a state that allows the freedom to marry or honors out-of-state marriages between same-sex couples.)

Nonetheless, CBO’s findings provide an answer to critics like the chairman of the Alabama Republican Party, who complained on Wednesday that Alabama taxpayers would “be on the hook” for funding federal benefits for same-sex spouses.

The reason for the revenue increase is that same-sex spouses will now generally file jointly, whereas previously they were barred from doing so. While the effect of this will increase revenues overall, some same-sex spouses would actually see their tax rates go down, depending on how much each spouse makes.

On the state level, studies have similarly found that allowing same-sex marriage would increase revenue slightly. One think tank found, for instance, that allowing same-sex couples to marry will generate $7.9 million benefits to state coffers in Maine and $1.2 million in Rhode Island.

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