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The End of DOMA: Ten Implications for Gay- and Lesbian-Headed Families

By Gerald P. Mallon

The Supreme Court struck down Section 3 (1 U.S.C. S 7) of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on June 26, 2013. By virtue of the high court's ruling on DOMA, the federal government can no longer discriminate against married gay couples in states where those marriages are legal. There is a caveat that the couples have to reside in a state that recognizes gay marriage. What does that mean for gay- and lesbian-headed families for all practical purposes? A great deal.

  1. Hospital Visiting Rights
    Same-sex couples now have hospital visitation rights for one another and for their children. Prior to the court's ruling, access could be denied if spouses were the same gender. With the June decision, same-sex couples now have hospital visitation rights in states where same-sex marriage is legal; the rule will apply to visiting their children.

  2. Tax Benefits
    Same-sex couples can now use the marital deduction for tax purposes, and can freely transfer money between each other (both during life and after one spouse's death). Because certain tax thresholds for married couples are less than half of those same thresholds for single couples, in some cases, married couples actually pay more by combining their assets.

  3. Health Insurance Benefits
    Many employers, including the federal government, allow employees to include their spouses and or children on their health plan. That now includes over 100,000 same-sex couples.

  4. Social Security Benefits
    It appears that same-sex couples will be eligible for the same benefits that opposite-sex couples are entitled to. This would include how these benefits are distributed. Perhaps most importantly, same-sex spouses should be eligible to receive survivor benefits when one of the parties dies, as should underage children following the death of a parent.

  5. Residence Status and Citizenship Benefits
    Foreign LGBT husbands and wives can apply for a green card and ultimately for U.S. citizenship. Couples in which one member is not a legal citizen will now be able to petition the government for immigration benefits. This is a right that non-lesbian and gay couples have been able to take advantage of for years.

  6. Parental Recognition
    Both members of a same-sex couple can now be recognized as parents of a child. Children have numerous tax and legal implications. Before the DOMA ruling, children of same-sex couples often existed in the strange legal limbo of "being" only one parent's child, with the other parent serving as "guardian." Now, both parents will be recognized.

  7. Military Benefits
    Gay spouses of military couples are afforded new benefits. As legally recognized married couples, gay spouses in the military may now use their partners' benefits, including medical and dental insurance. This belies the importance of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell, which stopped military personnel from even acknowledging their sexuality.

  8. Pension Benefits
    Lesbian and gay spouses can now list one another in pension funds at their place of employment. In some states prior to the dismantling of DOMA, couples who were not legally married could not access one another's pension funds; this could compromise their children's well-being if one partner's salary was not as high as that of his or her spouse.

  9. Legal Parenting Benefits
    Gay- and lesbian-headed families will no longer have to take extreme legal steps or measures to "prove" that they are parents to the children they care for--for example, carrying legal documents (such as power of attorney or adoption papers) when traveling with minor children to "prove" that the children are parented by both spouses.

  10. Emotional Benefits
    Lesbian and gay parents and their children will take solace in knowing that their families are recognized just as much as all other families are recognized. Having to explain one's family makeup over and over again is stressful, and ultimately can be destructive to the emotional structure of a family.

There are, of course, issues related to family law that come into play with the rapid changes taking place at the state and federal levels--divorce, prenuptial agreements, child custody and support issues, and adoptions. Those concerned about such issues would be wise to consult with an experienced family law attorney in their state.

Gerald P. Mallon, DSW, is the Julia Lathrop Professor of Child Welfare and Executive Director of the National Resource Center for Permanency and Family Connections at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in New York City.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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