What Marriage Equality Will Do For Same-Sex Couples

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A majority of Americans support same-sex marriage. And now it is legal in all 50 states — eguny a vote of 5 to 4, the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that gay couples have the constitutional right to marry. “No longer may this liberty be denied,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority opinion, handed down on June 26. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”

The political ramifications of this decision are yet to be fully understood. Some Republican presidential candidates, including former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, have criticized the decision and called for opposition.  Jindal claimed in a Politico op-ed that the decision will “pave the way for an all-out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with it, rights that are protected in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who is also vying for the Republican nomination, told NPR’s Steve Inskeep that states should ignore the mandate. Some Texas county clerks have even withheld licenses, according to the Texas Tribune.

While it may take some time for the political fallout to settle, we can begin to examine the sweeping effects the Supreme Court’s decision will have on the everyday lives of gay couples who were previously not allowed the same legal benefits as heterosexual couples. At the most basic level, this expansion provides “equal dignity in the eyes of the law” to same-sex couples, as Justice Kennedy noted. But, of course, federally recognized marriage has broad implications for all aspects of life, particularly how a couple builds their lives together. Among other things, this can include details around buying a house, raising children, and saving for the future. Here is a look at how the Supreme Court’s decision will improve the financial stability of married same-sex couples.

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Property Ownership

When two individuals own property together, the nature of the relationship is key.

With the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage, gay and lesbian couples now have the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. They are afforded the right of “tenancy of the entirety,” as Bankrate noted. This protected legal status allows each partner to own an undivided interest in the property, and to have both the right to occupy it and the right of survivorship. The right of survivorship means that when one partner dies, the other has full ownership of the property.

Previously, when states did not recognize unions between same-sex couples, only two options existed: joint rights of tenancy with survivorship and tenancy in common. The first option, tenancy with survivorship, may sound similar to the right of tenancy of the entirety, but it offers far fewer protections from creditors and other benefits that come with joint-spousal property ownership, as attorney Elizabeth Schwartz told Bankrate. “When marriage equality passed in Florida back in January, the requests to retitle properties started flowing in,” she said. “I’m glad legally married same-sex couples can avail themselves of this advantageous form of ownership.”

Same-sex couples will also be treated equally when applying for home loans from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which guarantees mortgages for eligible service members, veterans, and employees of the Department of Defense Department. Before the Supreme Court decision, the VA was required to defer to state law, meaning legally married couples who may have been eligible for a loan in California would be out of luck in the state of Texas, which did not recognize such unions.

Capital Gains

The second federal benefit that will be extended to same-sex couples, which previously was only enjoyed by married homeowners, is the capital gains exemption. Married couples can take double the capital gains exemption that an individual is allowed. In more straightforward terms, an individual must pay taxes on every dollar of profit over $250,000, while a couple pays only after a cap of $500,000 is reached. This right is hugely beneficial when a couple sells their primary residence. It is a right that was previously not extended to same-sex couples because their unions were not recognized under federal law, explained Bankrate.

Starting in 2013, the Internal Revenue Service would recognize legal same-sex marriages for tax purposes, meaning those performed in states without bans.

Social Security Benefits

Finally, the federal recognition of same-sex marriage will allow gay and lesbian couples to enjoy social security benefits.

“Few of those benefits are more important than Social Security,” Crosby Burns, a Harvard Kennedy School of Government graduate student and former policy analyst for the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the nonpartisan Center for American Progress, told Bankrate. “This program forms part of the bedrock of our nation’s safety net,” Burns added. “With full and equal access to this social insurance program, families headed by same-sex couples finally have access to the economic safeguards they need, intended to keep them out of poverty and afloat during hard times.”

For example, spouses are now allowed to collect retirement benefits based on his or her own earnings, or half of their higher-earning spouse’s benefit, whichever is larger. If the primary-wage earner becomes disabled, the spouse in same-sex unions will be eligible for the spousal disability benefit. And since the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, children of same-sex couples have had access to benefits designed to keep them out of poverty.

Social Security benefits have also been distributed to surviving same-sex partners since 2013, provided they lived in a state that recognized the union.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS
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