The rights and benefits conferred on married couples by various federal and state entities are being expanded in new and, occasionally, surprising ways. It is still true, of course that heterosexual marriages are the ultimate legal couple, with the broadest rights available to them. However, with the recent Supreme court decisions overturning the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8, there are a number of questions left to resolve when it comes to other types of couples.
Same-sex couples and elderly couples are (now) eligible for domestic partnerships, marriages, or both. Domestic partnerships that are registered with the Secretary of State of California are treated substantially the same as marriages for nearly all California purposes. However, domestic partnerships are not recognized for federal purposes. Individuals who have a registered domestic partnership still will not qualify for federal benefits by virtue of their relationship, notwithstanding recent court decisions.
Same-sex marriages are now universally valid in California. Prior to this summer, only marriages performed in the brief window when California allowed the marriages in 2008, and marriages in other states where such unions were legal were recognized. Now, for California purposes, a marriage is a marriage. However, when the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, it did not do so for all states. DOMA merely defined the word “spouse” in most federal statutes and the federal definition of “spouse” was overturned in favor of the state-defined term.
For purposes of VA Aid & Attendance Non Service Connected Disability benefits, the term “spouse” is separately defined and was not subject to DOMA, which left open the question whether the VA was able to continue excluding same-sex married couples from available benefits. However, a judge for the U.S. District Court of the Central District of California recently decided that the VA’s assertion that its federal definition of “spouse” is not subject to the DOMA decision would not fly. Instead, the plaintiff who suffers from multiple sclerosis, must be paid her disability scale as a married woman even though she is married to another woman.
The IRS also recently issued its own surprising ruling: same-sex couples with valid marriages may be treated as married for all federal tax purposes, regardless of where they live. This means that couples married in California may now move to any state, whether or not their marriage is recognized in that state, and be treated as married by the IRS. The announcement may prove to be particularly important for couples who wish to retire in states with lower income taxes that also tend to be more conservative, such as Texas or Florida. Even if domiciled in one of those states at death, gift and estate tax rules will apply to the couple as married.
On another note, common law marriages do not exist in California. A common law marriage is a marriage that arises without a formal ceremony by statute in only a handful of states. The statutes typically require the couple to cohabitate for an extended period of time, to present themselves to the public as married, and to express an intent to marry. If the couple established a common law marriage in a state where such a statute exists, then California courts will recognize the union in some circumstances. Additionally, property contracts between couples, such as purchasing a home jointly, may be upheld in certain circumstances. In either case, proving the common law marriage or property contract will be vital to the action.
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