During the runup to the Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, one number kept recurring: The government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages meant gay couples were denied more than 1,000 federal benefits that straight couples enjoy. Now that the justices have struck down DOMA, gays can look forward to equality under U.S. tax laws. That is, just as soon as the Internal Revenue Service can figure out how to make equality happen. The tax agency has promised to “move swiftly” to recognize gay unions, but for many couples it won’t be as simple as checking the “married” box on their 1040.
Those living in Washington, D.C., or the 13 states that allow same-sex marriages can file a federal tax return next April just like other married couples. Not so for the thousands of gay couples who took their vows in one of those states but who live in one of the 37 others where same-sex marriage isn’t recognized. It’s not yet clear whose definition of marriage the IRS is supposed to follow in evaluating their taxes—the state where the couple got married, or the one in which they reside. And will the federal government recognize gay couples in civil unions who file a joint return?
To avoid confusion, a single nationwide rule makes the most sense, says Patricia Cain, a tax law professor at Santa Clara University in California. “The IRS has the power to construe the Internal Revenue Code,” she says. “So for them it’s, ‘What does the word spouse mean?’ ” President Obama has weighed in, saying it’s his “personal belief” that same-sex couples should get the same federal benefits as married couples regardless of where they live. He’s asked federal agencies to research legal issues that might stand in the way. Such a ruling, though, could cause headaches for the IRS, which until now has typically followed states’ definitions of marriage, says David Herzig, a tax law professor at Valparaiso University. “You may solve this problem,” he says, “but you may open up another.”
Many gay couples might not like what marriage equality looks like on a tax form. Until now, they’ve been able to take advantage of their separate status to maximize tax savings—claiming multiple capital-loss deductions unavailable to opposite-sex married couples or multiple tax credits for adopting children. Straight married spouses with roughly equal incomes typically pay a marriage penalty under the tax code, because more of their income is subject to higher marginal tax rates. Gay couples would get hit with the same penalty. And unless the IRS exempts them from paying back taxes, some same-sex married couples could owe penalties for underwithholding during the time they’ve been married, even though the federal government didn’t recognize their unions until now.
On the other hand, gay couples with unequal incomes would get the same marriage bonus as straight couples and could seek a refund for the extra taxes they paid in recent years. Typically the IRS allows taxpayers three years to redo their tax returns. “One of the biggest issues is what to do retroactively,” says Elda Di Re, a partner at Ernst & Young in New York. “One would think that the IRS will allow there to be filing refunds—but not mandate filing to pay additional tax.”
Another potential mess: what to do about payroll taxes workers paid on employer-provided health insurance for their same-sex spouses, which isn’t taxable for married couples. The IRS could allow refunds, and then businesses would have to figure out how to distribute them to employees and ex-employees. Some companies pay married gay employees extra to cover their health-care tax burdens; they would have to decide whether to seek reimbursements from workers who get income tax refunds. And the IRS has to figure out whether or how to tax alimony payments from gay marriages that end in divorce, and money inherited from the retirement account of a same-sex spouse.
All these decisions will be made with a skeptical—and sometimes hostile—Congress ready to call foul. The IRS is already under scrutiny for its clumsy probes of political groups, and its efforts to formalize gay marriage in the tax code are likely to provoke congressional hearings and lawsuits. “No matter what they do,” says Herzig, “it’s such a volatile issue they’ll end up getting a challenge.”