On December 7, 2012, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) refused to recognize an estate tax exemption for surviving spouses of a same sex marriage.
Edith Windsor’s wife, Thea Spyer, passed away in 2009 and had left her entire estate to Windsor. The couple was legally married in Ontario, and the marriage was subsequently recognized by the State of New York. Upon Spyer’s passing, the federal government refused to recognize the Estate Tax Exemption because of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
This section of DOMA prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage by excluding same-sex couples from the federal definition of “spouse.” DOMA had a very narrow definition of the word spouse, and only recognized marriage as between a man and a woman, for federal purposes. As a result, DOMA prohibited same-sex couples, among other things, from collecting federal tax benefits from a spouse. DOMA also impacted approximately one thousand other federal statutes in regard to marriage and specifically same-sex marriage.
On June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. The Court found that Section 3 violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Supreme Court’s decision, in part, was based on the approach that marriage has traditionally been left to the states, and that although it may be different among the states, it is in fact uniform within each state.
In particular, the Court found that New York (as well as 11 other states) sought to protect this class of citizens, and that DOMA not only frustrated this purpose, but also placed restrictions on it, and “[b]y seeking to injure the very class New York seeks to protect, DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. ___ (2013). The Court’s decision rested on a combination of factors, such as state autonomy in regard to marriage laws, personal liberty and equality in regard to same-sex marriage being recognized on a federal level, and personal autonomy in regard to an individual’s right to personal dignity and respect.
These factors led to the conclusion that section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional “as a deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.” United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. ___ (2013). Therefore, legal same-sex marriages in the State of New York are now eligible for the same federal tax exemptions as marriages between heterosexual couples.
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