Gray Zone

Where You Live May Make All The Difference For Federal Marriage Benefits

There’s no downplaying the significance of the Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act. But in fact the ruling may not be quite as sweeping as you might think. Just because you were legally married in one state doesn’t mean you will necessarily get all the benefits you think you are entitled to. Geography will play a big role in how the federal government looks upon your marriage.

The Supreme Court made it clear that the federal benefits it made available to same-sex married couples will only apply to those couples married in states that have marriage equality. Those couples who live in states that ban marriage equality are still out in the cold.

The problem will be when couples move from the state where they are married. If you move for work or school, retire or for whatever reason end up in a state that does not recognize your marriage, you are in a gray zone (which will be a lawyer’s delight).

The reason: for some federal benefits, the government relies upon the state in which you live to determine if you are legally married. If you move from Massachusetts to Montana, for the purpose of certain federal benefits you are no longer married. Those benefits include Social Security survivor benefits. It may also affect whether you will be able to take unpaid leave to care for your spouse under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Moving may also affect how you pay taxes. If you move to a non-marriage equality state, it’s not clear whether you can still file a joint federal tax return, which could mean a big financial hit. 

It will take years of litigation to sort through these issues. In the meantime, the Obama Administration could do everyone a big favor by making it clear how it interprets the application of benefits.

Map credit: Lokal_Profil