IRS Marriage Definition Now Includes Same-Sex

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has expanded its definition of marriage for federal income tax purposes to include same-sex marriage.

The Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Department announced the change last week.  The change means that same-sex married couples will be able to file using the married filing jointly or married filing separately filing status on their tax returns and claim other exemptions typically reserved for heterosexual married couples.

Who does the IRS change affect?

The change applies to same-sex married couples beginning in the 2013 tax year regardless of the jurisdiction where they live, even if the jurisdiction does not recognize same-sex marriage.  Those couples affected by the ruling can file amended federal income tax returns for up to the three previous tax years.

The change does not allow those in domestic partnerships, civil unions, or other non-married relationships from obtaining these tax benefits.

The shift in policy by the IRS was an expected change, as the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) of 1996 in United States v. Windsor earlier this year.  The provision of the Act had prevented same-sex married couples from receiving tax benefits of marriage.

“Today’s ruling provides certainty and clear, coherent tax-filing guidance for all legally married same-sex couples nationwide,” noted Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew in a statement released with the announcement.  “This ruling also assures legally married same-sex couples that they can move freely throughout the country knowing that their federal filing status will not change.”

Gay-rights groups praise the change

Groups that advocate gay-rights were quick to embrace the change as another victory in having equally footing with heterosexual marriage.

“Committed and loving gay and lesbian married couples will now be treated equally under our nation’s federal tax laws, regardless of what state they call home,” said Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign.  “These families finally have access to crucial tax benefits and protections previously denied to them under the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act.”

“We’re just so overjoyed about not having to experience that negative feeling of not being a legitimate family,” noted Geraldine Artis.  Artis lives with her wife and their two children in Connecticut.  “We’re looking forward to the experience of filing our taxes jointly and being treated as a family.”

“Thanks to today’s ruling at the Treasury Department, no one will have to experience the pain and indignity that I went through ever again,” noted Edith Windsor, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case leading to the change.  “I feel so proud and grateful to my country and to our president.”

When Windsor ‘s wife died, Windsor had attempted to claim a spousal exemption for estate tax purposes, a claim that was prevented at the time.

Good and bad of filing married tax return

Typically, using the married filing jointly filing status will result in a lower amount of income tax owed than does filing individual returns, which was the only option available to same-sex married couples previously.  However, many same-sex married couples may see the benefit of the ruling not so much in dollars saved but rather simply in the recognition the change gives to same-sex marriage as legitimate.

However, as with heterosexual married couples, certain same-sex married couples who are high income earners will find that now being required to file a married filing jointly or married filing separately tax return will actually increase their income tax liability.

by Mark Johnston

Mark has been a contributor to legal web sites related to bankruptcy, tax, and criminal law since 2011. He has an Accounting degree from Texas A&M University.