Same-sex married couples eligible for more than 1,000 federal benefits after DOMA decision

The Supreme Court’s ruling that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional paves the way for married gay couples to receive more than a 1,000 federal benefits and protections their straight counterparts already have access to.

The ruling applies to all married couples in Massachusetts, as well as the 11 other states and the District of Columbia where gay marriage is legal.

“This is enormous,” said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. “The right to marry is not only critical socially and societally, but it also has huge economic implications.”

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The 1,138 federal benefits and protections already given to opposite-sex married couples will now apply to same-sex couples, and will affect the way businesses handle employee benefits, like healthcare and family leave, as well as hiring and new employee orientation practices.

“Striking down DOMA gets rid of a lot of distractions,” said Tracy Burns, the executive director of the Northeast Human Resources Association. Before the ruling, human resources staff had to navigate the intricacies of the differences between benefits for straight and gay married employees, added Burns.

Most notably, gay married couples will be able to file a joint federal tax return; before gay married couples in Massachusetts had to file jointly for the state income tax and then file separately as a single person for their federal tax returns.

Scott Squillace, an estate planning lawyer at Squillace & Associates in the Back Bay, which has approximately 350 gay couples as clients, and Christopher Paul, an estate planning lawyer in New Hampshire’s McLane Law Firm, outlined some of the larger benefits gay married couples will now be able to receive:

Military benefits: Though the US military has repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and promised to give 20 benefits to same-sex couples as early as August, all benefits to opposite-sex military spouses will now apply to same-sex spouses as well. Additionally, spouses of deceased veterans will be eligible to receive veterans’ benefits. Other benefits include spousal coverage under health care plans and housing allowances to cover gay married couples.

Social Security survivor benefits: If a spouse in the marriage dies, the surviving spouse can now collect the deceased spouse’s Social Security checks if that amount is higher than the one he or she was currently receiving.

Federal estate tax break: An unlimited marital deduction now applies on both the state and federal level, meaning that if one spouse wanted to leave all possessions and assets to the living spouse, he or she would be able to do so, without that amount being taxed. Previously, the federal estate tax was 40 percent on any estate over $5.25 million.

Property sales: If one spouse sells land to another, capital gains taxes will not apply.

Retirement plan rollover: A deceased spouse’s Individual Retirement Account can roll over into the survivor’s without being taxed first.

Federal health care protections: Same-sex married couples will now be eligible to receive COBRA benefits and spousal benefits in Medicare, cutting the cost of those health plans.

Federal employee benefits: For federal employees, the government will recognize gay spouses, making them eligible for a variety of benefits such as healthcare coverage. Federal gay married employees can also participate in family medical leaves.

US Citizenship. Spouses who are citizens can now sponsor a visa for a non-citizen spouse and the foreign national can receive spousal preference for a path to citizenship.