The practical impact of Wednesday’s Defense of Marriage Act ruling on gay married couples who live in Georgia is, at least for now, minimal.
But President Barack Obama said his administration is deciding how broadly the decision will be interpreted. And legal experts predicted the ruling will spawn more litigation if federal benefits continue to be denied to gay married couples in Georgia and other states that do not recognize same-sex marriage.
More immediately, it appears same-sex married couples living on military bases in Georgia will be entitled to the more than 1,100 federal tax, health care, employment and pension benefits that straight couples enjoy, lawyers said. The ruling also indicates that U.S. government employees in same-sex marriages should begin receiving Social Security and federal retirement system benefits.
Because Georgia bans gay marriage and does not recognize marriages of its gay couples performed in other states, it is unclear how many, if any, of the federal benefits enjoyed by straight couples can now be extended to gay married couples in Georgia, legal experts said.
“Nobody is quite sure what the implications will be,” said Hillel Levin, a University of Georgia law professor who has researched the issue. “I wish I could be more specific, but the truth is this is going to be a big open question.”
Obama said he had “directed the Attorney General to work with other members of my cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.”
The president’s statement appears to be a step toward extending federal benefits to gay married couples in Georgia, Levin said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us how far the administration is going to go.”
Historically, the federal goverment has looked to the state where gay married couples live and whether that state recognizes same-sex marriage when deciding what benefits are allowed, Indiana University law professor Deborah Widiss said.
“So potentially a gay married couple living in Georgia would not count in terms of federal taxes or Social Security or other federal benefits,” Widiss said. “I predict future court challenges if the federal government continues not to recognize those same-sex marriages.”
The high court ruled in favor of 84-year-old Edie Windsor, of New York, who married Thea Spyer in Canada in 2007 after the couple had been together four decades. When Spyer died two years later, the IRS did not recognize the validity of their marriage, which meant Windsor owed $363,053 in estate taxes. Windsor filed suit, contending the DOMA provision was unconstitutional.
Ruling in Windsor’s favor, Kennedy said gay couples, under DOMA, “have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways.” He wrote, “The avowed purpose and practical effect of the law here in question are to impose a disadvantage, a separate status and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages made lawful by the unquestioned authority of the states.”
DOMA touches the lives of many same-sex married couples in ways both mundane and profound, Kennedy wrote. It prevents them from obtaining government health care benefits and prohibits them from being buried together in veterans’ cemeteries.
Atlanta attorney Kathleen Womack, who specializes in domestic partnership law, said it’s going to be interesting to see how far the Obama Administration goes in extending federal benefits to same-sex married couples in Georgia.
Regardless of how broadly the administration interprets Wednesday’s decision, she said, same-sex couples will still be prohibited from being married in Georgia because of the state’s ban against it.
For this reason, gay married couples will still be unable to get a divorce in Georgia. A gay or lesbian person will still be unable to visit a spouse who is hospitalized, unless the correct paperwork has been filled out. And if a gay spouse dies without a will, the estate will still go to the biological relatives of the deceased, not the married partner, Womack said.
Decatur lawyer Denise VanLanduyt, who married her partner in Vancouver in 2006, said she believes Wednesday’s decision now allows her and her spouse to file a joint federal tax return.
“It’s going to be a situation where either the federal government provides the benefits or forces the next lawsuit to make them happen,” she said. “I think Justice Kennedy’s ruling teed it up nicely for that.”