The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act – the law that denies more than 1,000 federal benefits to same-sex married couples – may dramatically transform the legal status and financial standing of hundreds of thousands of gay Americans, according to political advocates and policy analysts.
The top court Wednesday overturned in a 5-4 decision the third section of the 1996 law — known by the acronym DOMA — that strictly defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman and blocked same-sex couples from access to an estimated 1,138 federal privileges and programs that use marital status as a criterion for eligibility.
That means gay couples living in one of the 12 states, plus the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal will soon see a windfall from Uncle Sam.
But because government agencies follow contradictory statutes and regulations, gay couples living in the 38 states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage may only be treated to a fraction of the federal spousal benefits, according to activists.
“Different federal programs have different standards,” said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. “It’s murky.”
The U.S. Department of Defense, for instance, would distribute military veterans' spousal benefits to gay couples based on laws in the state where they got hitched — a boon for most married gay couples.
The Internal Revenue Service, in contrast, would award estate tax exemptions to gay spouses based solely on laws in the state where they settled down — a bust for gay couples living in states with bans on same-sex marriages.
“If you were married in Massachusetts and live in Massachusetts, you’re going to have access to all of these benefits virtually immediately,” Sainz said, referencing a state where gay marriage is legal.
“But if you were married in Massachusetts and live in Alabama, that’s where things are going to get very tricky,” Sainz added. “You’ll receive some benefits and you won’t receive others. You’ll be on very uncertain terrain.”
Sainz said that gay rights groups are planning to lobby the federal government to expand the so-called “place of celebration standard” – the eligibility criteria premised on where a couple holds their wedding ceremony – across all the major agencies responsible for dolling out benefits.
Opponents of same-sex marriage, who have historically challenged efforts to widen the legal and cultural definition of marriage on the national stage, may block any move to revise the language in federal statutes and regulations.
Here are just a few of the key federal benefits many same-sex couples stand to receive now that the Supreme Court has dispensed with DOMA:
— Survivors’ benefits: DOMA barred gay and lesbian couples from many entitlement and welfare programs, including doles tied to Social Security. Same-sex spouses will now be eligible for Social Security survivors’ benefits upon the death of a partner, among other forms of assistance, according to a December 2012 report by the Human Rights Campaign.
— Tax-free employee health insurance: Federal law has lagged behind the almost 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies who offer tax-free employer-provided health benefits to domestic partners. Health coverage for the spouses of gay and lesbian employees will now be available without any taxable strings attached.
— IRS perks: Gay and lesbian couples have historically faced a higher tax burden than traditional couples, according to M.V. Lee Badgett, the Research Director at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA. Same-sex spouses can now claim a host of perks, from estate tax exemptions to head of household deductions. What’s more, same-sex spouses can file tax returns jointly, avoiding additional strain on wallets.
— Emergency leave: Present law does not offer gay and lesbian employees time off from work to tend to a domestic partner or that partner’s family member, according to the Human Rights Campaign. But the guarantees provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act will soon become available to same-sex spouses.
— Green cards and visas: There are an estimated 28,500 binational same-sex couples — meaning one partner is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and one isn’t — but DOMA did not allow the former to petition for the latter to immigrate, according to the Williams Institute. But gays and lesbians may now lobby the federal government for green cards or visas for a non-American same-sex partner.
The road to the Supreme Court
The case on which the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday stemmed from a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government by Edie Windsor, 83, a woman forced to pay over $360,000 in federal estate taxes following the death of her wife, Thea Spyer, in 2009.
Federal law mandates that private property left to a surviving spouse is largely exempt from hefty taxation. But DOMA blocked the IRS from recognizing Windsor’s marriage.
Windsor and Spyer lived together in New York City for over 40 years before they were married in Canada in 2007, two years before Spyer died.
Lower courts declared that DOMA was discriminatory and unconstitutional, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to make a final determination.
Defense of Marriage Act opponent Edie Windsor discusses Wednesday's hearing at the Supreme Court.
The Justice Department stopped defending DOMA in court in 2011 after Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress and President Barack Obama he had determined that “classifications based on sexual orientation” were not consistent with the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under law as established by the Fifth Amendment.
The Obama administration continued to enforce the law nationwide. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives took up the law’s defense in March 2011.
DOMA was originally passed by wide margins in both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Clinton, years later, repudiated the controversial law, writing in March in The Washington Post: “I have come to believe that DOMA is … incompatible with our Constitution.”
NBC News’ Tom Curry and Pete Williams contributed to this report.
Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA
Celebrations around the nation as the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and declined to rule on California's Prop 8, legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.