Personal Finance: Marriage shifts same-sex financial strategies

cbuck@sacbee.comJune 30, 2013 

7B30BUCKCOUPLE

Kathy McConville, left, and Kathy Purdy, wed in 2008, can file U.S. taxes as a couple.

KATHY MCCONVILLE

It's about far more than wedding rings.

For thousands of gay and lesbian couples, last week's U.S. Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage were a long-awaited cause for celebration. But uncertainty reigns over many of the financial and tax implications.

"Just winning the freedom to marry is huge," said Rebecca Harper, a financial adviser with Harper Davis Financial in Sacramento, which specializes in tax and investing advice for same-sex clients.

But, she added, "There's both progress and chaos."

The chaos is due to the personal finance questions – from payroll withholding to tax refunds – that remain in the wake of the court's rulings.

In addressing the long-simmering debate over gay marriage, the court Wednesday issued two historic decisions: It struck down a provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, a 1996 law that defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. It also left intact the overturning of California's Proposition 8, the controversial 2008 ballot measure that barred gays and lesbian couples from marrying. Same-sex marriages resumed Friday in the state.

Under DOMA, same-sex couples have been denied access to more than 1,000 federal rights and benefits that accrue to other married couples, said Harper, ticking off a lengthy list: health care, pensions, adoptions, family leave, Social Security, inheritances, property transfers, military benefits, spousal support, "even immigration sponsorship."

For federal purposes, those rights are now presumably granted, at least in the 13 states (including California) where same-sex marriages are legal. "There's no distinction now on marriage. Marriage is marriage," said Harper. In those states, "All of the benefits normally afforded a heterosexual couple are now granted to a same-sex couple."

For longtime couples like Kathy McConville and Kathy Purdy, both 60, the impact is immediate and long-term.

The Carmichael residents, who married in June 2008 during California's brief window allowing same-sex weddings, have long dealt with the financial complications caused by their union. McConville is a retired state government manager; Purdy works for the U.S. Post Office.

For years, they've had to file their taxes two different ways: as married filing jointly for California taxes, but as singles for federal. Because they couldn't share Social Security survivor benefits like most married couples, they've carried extra, expensive life insurance, so that if one died, her partner would have sufficient financial resources. They've also had to pay federal taxes on McConville's state-provided health care coverage for Purdy.

As a federal employee, Purdy had postponed any thought of retirement until she knew how her pension would be affected by the court rulings.

All of that suddenly changed on Wednesday. "Being able to share those retirement benefits and provide for each other as other married couples do … it's huge," said McConville.

Sacramento estate planning attorney Trudy Nearn recommends that all same-sex couples – in fact, anyone over 18 – have some basic documents in place: a health care directive, a financial power of attorney and a medical-records release. These documents let you designate a partner, spouse or parent to act on your behalf, if necessary.

Also, Nearn said same-sex couples should consider a will or trust to ensure that their assets are distributed as intended at their death.

Couples who executed a trust before DOMA may want to revisit those estate plans now that the federal tax equation has changed.

"Previously, same-sex couples had no federal tax benefits available. But now, they'll have to make the same decisions and trade-offs that other married couples do," said Nearn.

For employers, the ruling may require changing spousal terminology on employee health care and retirement forms. For employees, it may entail choosing a different health care plan, now that spousal coverage is not taxed federally.

Another potential issue facing married same-sex couples: changing their federal payroll withholding, now that they can file an IRS tax return as married, instead of as individuals.

"It's different for every couple and every situation," said Terri Davis, a CPA with Harper Davis Financial.

For any of those issues, it could be worth talking with a tax adviser, financial planner, estate planning attorney or your employer's benefits counselor.

Another unknown is what happens if married same-sex couples relocate to one of the 37 states that do not recognize those marriages.

Jokes Harper: "Our advice to couples: Don't move."

Questions also revolve around amended tax returns and potential tax refunds.

Michael Anderson, an analyst with personal finance site NerdWallet in San Francisco, said it's possible that a surviving spouse of a same-sex couple can now seek reimbursement for inheritance taxes or assets taken by family members.

Taxes were the basis of the DOMA lawsuit, filed by Edith Windsor, an 83-year-old New York widow who had to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes after her partner died in 2009. The couple, both professionals who were together since the 1960s, had married in Canada in 2007.

In ruling that Windsor was denied equal treatment as a same-sex spouse, she's now due a $363,000 tax refund, plus interest.

One of the immediate financial changes was announced Wednesday by CalPERS, which said gay couples could now purchase its long-term care insurance policies.

Gaining the right to marry also could bump some same-sex couples into higher, costlier tax brackets.

"It doesn't mean it's necessarily going to be tax-beneficial," said CPA Davis. But for most of her clients, she added, "It's worth it."

For many same-sex partners, being able to legally join the ranks of married couples is victory enough.

"It's such a huge sense of relief," said McConville, her voice cracking with emotion. "You want to be able to take care of each other when you're older. By virtue of being able to provide survivor benefits for each other, our future is safer."

Call The Bee's Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/personalfinanceblog.

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