The United States Supreme Court recently eliminated Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), sighting a violation of the equal protection clause for same-sex married couples under the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. This means same-sex married couples can now enjoy the same federal tax-related benefits as opposite-sex married couples.

While the effective date of the DOMA tax windfall has yet to be determined, same-sex couples and employers should evaluate all of the federal tax-related implications currently present that influence married couples.

Federal Income Taxes: Benefits and Burdens

The most expansive change resulting from the Supreme Court’s decision is how same-sex couples will file federal income taxes. The option to file single is now obsolete, and couples can now only file for either a joint or a married-filing-separately return.

Joint Tax Return           

Filing a joint return can produce many benefits previously withheld from same-sex married couples. No longer will couples brood over how itemized deductions are allocated or credits are applied to each partner’s individual return. Furthermore, if there is a large disparity between the financial status of each married individual, filing jointly tilts in the couple’s favor, as one partner can earn or deduct the greater portion of otherwise combined amounts.  The option to file full refund claims, versus protective claims, which many couples filed in anticipation of the reversal of DOMA, is now available to same-sex married couples.

With these added perks comes precaution. One critical component of filing taxes that same-sex married couples will now have to consider is the marriage penalty. Many couples will encounter phaseouts for various deductibles that were previously applicable to them when filing single. This is especially true in the event that each individual in a marriage brings in comparable income. In this instance, the benefit of filing jointly is minimized, as couples will most likely surpass threshold phaseouts they were once eligible for when filing single.

Married Filing Separately

If little benefit is surmised from filing jointly, couples can opt to file married but separate, documenting their individual assets and liabilities independently. In this case however, the couple usually pays higher income taxes than if filing single.

AGI and Threshold Levels: What to Consider

It is imperative that same-sex married couples discuss the impact of how they decide to file taxes. Threshold levels determined by the IRS are based on three things:

  1. Amount of adjusted gross income (AGI)
  2. Modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)
  3. Deductions reported on a return

Below is a chart specifying the phaseout threshold starting points for joint, single and married-filing-separately statuses:

2013 AGI (MAGI) Phaseout Threshold Start Points

Joint Return Single Married Filing Separately
Itemized Deductions: $300,000 $250,000 $150,000
Personal Exemptions: $300,000 $250,000 $150,000
Maximum New Capital Gains: $450,000 $400,000 $225,000
Net Investment Income Surtax: $250,000 $200,000 $125,000
Additional Medicare Tax: $250,000 $200,000 $125,000
Child Tax Credit: $110,000 $75,000 $55,000
American Opportunity Credit: $160,000 $80,000 $55,000
Lifetime Learning Credit: $107,000 $53,000 $55,000
IRA Deduction (plan participants): $95,000 $59,000 *
Roth IRA Eligibility: $178,000 $112,000 **

*Deduction determined under single status if not living with spouse at any time during tax year; otherwise partial deduction if MAGI is less than $10,000 and no deduction if MAGI is $10,000 or more.

**$10,000 if lived with spouse at any time during tax year; $112,000 if did not live with spouse at any time during tax year.

Estate and Gift Taxation: An Added Perk

When spouses die, living spouses have financial access to the deceased’s estate. They can also divide gifts, taking advantage of the double annual gift tax exclusions. While DOMA was in effect, a same-sex married spouse had no control over the disbursements of these tax benefits, leaving it up to the state to determine its allocation. Couples can now benefit from both estate and gift taxes:

Estate Tax Perks

  • Unlimited deductions provided from the gross estate for property from the descending spouse to the surviving spouse.
  • Portability extensions that allow a surviving spouse to attain the unused portion of an estate tax that contributed from the last deceased spouse.

Gift Tax Perks

  • Gift splitting, the ability to divide a gift among both spouses, is now an option for same-sex couples, doubling gift tax exclusions.

Employee Benefits

Outside of federal income taxes, same-sex couples will see the most change in their employee benefits, as they will have the option to include their spouse. There are many new options that can now be equally used among a married couple, dependent upon options offered by the employer, including the following:

  •  Cafeteria Plans: Pre-tax dollars can now be use to cover a spouse under a company’s cafeteria plan.
  • Health Flexible Spending Accounts: Same-sex married employees can use flexible spending arrangement (FSA) dollars toward their spouse’s qualifying medical expenses.

Other Benefits

Aside from employee benefits, Social Security and educational benefits are now on the table. Both offer benefits and credits, previously held off from same-sex married couples. Below is a list of the  additional benefits that same-sex married couples can take advantage of.

Social Security Benefits

  • Survivor Benefits
  • Divorced Spouses Benefits
  • Death Benefits

Educational Benefits

  • American Opportunity Tax Credit
  • Coverdell Education Savings Accounts
  • IRA Withdrawals for Education
  • Post-Death IRA Payments

What’s Next for DOMA?

While eradicating Section 3 of DOMA has been a monumental push toward marriage equality, there are still many issues that the IRS and other governmental parties need to resolve.

Marriage Status:  The state where a same-sex couple resides determines their eligibility for tax-related benefits.  This poses concern for some couples who marry in one state and live or move to another state. In this instance they will have to follow state guidelines.

In addition, other relationship statuses such as “domestic partnership” and “civil union” hold a different meaning in each state. Depending on the state of residency, a same-sex couple may or may not be eligible for marital tax-related benefits.

Prior Tax Year Amendments: It has yet to be decided how far back same-sex married couples should amend their taxes, but it can be guaranteed that they will need to make amendments to accommodate the new changes.  This is a process that will need to be addressed in concrete detail by the IRS and other governmental bodies and employers impacted by the DOMA modification.

The reversal of Section 3 of DOMA is still in its early stages, and it will take time to make adjustments to this shift in tax planning and benefits. If DOMA will affect you, learn more about how to best prepare for these changes by contacting our tax advisors in in Michigan, Houston or Ft. Lauderdale.