The IRS, not known for making people happy, put smiles on the faces of supporters of gay and lesbian rights nationwide Thursday, when it announced that same-sex married couples will now be governed by the same tax rules as opposite-sex couples, whether the state they live in recognizes their marriages or not.
Also Thursday the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that if both spouses in a same-sex marriage are beneficiaries in a Medicare Advantage plan, they will be entitled to receive equal coverage for treatment in the same nursing home, a benefit previously reserved for opposite-sex couples.
Florida does not recognize same-sex marriage, but gay and lesbian couples married in other states who live in Florida will benefit from the rulings.
“This is wonderful,” said Rand Hoch, president of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council. “The more that the laws change to treat same-sex couple equally the more we improve this society. We’ve been trying to tell people that for long time and now slowly America is beginning to embrace that.”
Both rulings stem from a June decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. That law was challenged by a woman who had been legally married to another woman in Canada, but when her spouse died she was forced to pay more $350,000 in estate taxes, rather than receive the exemption an opposite-sex spouse would received. The court found that unconstitutional.
The Treasury Department said that the new IRS rules apply to “all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor, including filing status, claiming personal and dependency exemptions, taking the standard deduction, employee benefits, contributing to an IRA, and claiming the earned income tax credit or child tax credit.”
The ruling applies to all legal marriages made in the United States or foreign countries. It does not extend to civil unions, registered domestic partnerships or other legal relationships, the Treasury said. Same-sex spouses will be able to file as married couples for the 2013 tax year and will also be able to file amended returns for certain prior tax years, meaning that many couples might be eligible for refunds.
“Today’s ruling provides certainty and clear, coherent tax filing guidance for all legally married same-sex couples nationwide,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement.
“This ruling assures legally married same-sex couples that they can move freely throughout the country knowing that their federal filing status will not change,” Lew said.
As of the 2013 tax year, same-sex spouses cannot file federal tax returns as if they were single. Instead, they will have to opt for filing as “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately.” Some same-sex couples will save money by filing jointly, but others not, the same as opposite-sex couples.
“I’m telling people to make sure to talk to their accountants before they file,” Hoch said.
Tony Plakas, CEO of the Compass, the gay and lesbian center in Lake Worth, said he had been waiting for IRS ruling since the Supreme Court decision.
“It was inevitable,” he said.
Plakas married his spouse Jamietodd Foreman Plakas, in 2011 in Massachusetts.
“But we’ve lived in same house together for 16 years,” Plakas said. “If something were to happen to one of us, you would think people would want to see the other person have security. There’s a monetary component. This is just providing security to couples who have built their lives together.”
Debbie Frazier of the local chapter of the United Gay and Straight Alliance, based in Wellington, said the rulings by the two federal agencies can only help the cause of same-sex marriage nationwide.
“This is going to make it at least a little easier to get same-sex marriage passed in other states,” she said. “It’s going to be harder to make the case that we should be denied these rights. I believe the fight will be a little less of fight now.”
At the moment 13 states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.
Both Hoch and Frazier praised President Barack Obama, who in May 2012 announced his support for same-sex marriage.
“President Obama announcing his support has helped us a lot,” Frazier said.
The Medicare ruling was announced by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
“HHS is working swiftly to implement the Supreme Court’s decision and maximize federal recognition of same-sex spouses in HHS programs,” Sebelius said. “Today’s announcement is the first of many steps that we will be taking over the coming months to clarify the effects of the Supreme Court’s decision and to ensure that gay and lesbian married couples are treated equally under the law.”
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Marilyn Tavenner added details.
“Today, Medicare is ensuring that all beneficiaries will have equal access to coverage in a nursing home where their spouse lives, regardless of their sexual orientation,” Tavenner said. “Prior to this, a beneficiary in a same-sex marriage enrolled in a Medicare Advantage plan did not have equal access to such coverage and, as a result, could have faced time away from his or her spouse or higher costs because of the way that marriage was defined for this purpose.”
“Today’s guidance clarifies that this guarantee of coverage applies equally to all married couples,” said an HHS press release. “The guidance specifically clarifies that this guarantee of coverage applies equally to couples who are in a legally recognized same-sex marriage, regardless of where they live.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.