The long-term repercussions of a landmark Supreme Court case (United States v. Windsor), which struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), will likely take years to sort out. In the meantime, individuals and employers must address the changes that took effect almost immediately for same-sex couples.

Based on guidance recently issued by the federal government -- with more scheduled to follow -- here are the basics in six critical areas.

Guidance from
Other Federal Agencies

Besides the Social Security Administration, other federal agencies have weighed in on Windsor, including:

U.S. Department of Labor updated its procedures under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). As a result, a qualified employee in a same-sex marriage who was married and resides in a state recognizing same-sex marriages is entitled to a maximum 12-week FMLA leave to care for a seriously-ill spouse.

U.S. Department of Defense stated that spousal and family benefits will be available to all spouses, regardless of sexual orientation. That means healthcare benefits, as well as allowances for housing and family separation, will be granted to same-sex married military and civilian couples.

U.S. Office of Personnel Management no longer prohibits federal employees in same-sex marriages from collecting survivor benefits on civil service annuities. Same-sex couples have two years from the date of the Windsor decision to do so. Newly retired individuals may make those elections through the regular retirement process.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security states on its website that it will examine the law where the marriage took place to determine if it is valid for immigration law purposes.

U.S. Department of State states that same-sex spouses may qualify for an immigrant or non-immigrant visa as long as the marriage is valid in the jurisdiction where it took place, according to its Bureau of Consular Affairs.

1. Social Security benefits: Previously, a surviving spouse in a same-sex marriage could not receive Social Security retirement benefits based on a deceased spouse's earnings record. Now, the Social Security Administration (SSA) states that a claim can be filed by couples married in states where same-sex marriage is legal if the couple resides in a state recognizing same-sex marriage at the time of the application or while the claim is pending a final determination.

However, claims may be placed on hold in some situations. For example, the SSA has yet to determine what will happen if a couple initially entered a same-sex civil union and the state subsequently converted such civil unions into marriages.

2. Retirement plans: The rights for same-sex married couples are now the same as traditional married couples when one spouse participates in a qualified retirement plan, such as a 401(k) plan. This is true whether or not the employer is based in a state recognizing same-sex marriages.

This change has various financial implications. For instance, a plan participant can't change from having a spouse beneficiary to a non-spouse beneficiary without obtaining the spouse's consent. In the case of divorce, a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) may be used to grant one spouse the right to share the pension benefits of the other. Finally, a surviving spouse in a same-sex marriage can now benefit from favorable distribution rules, as is the case for IRAs (see below).

3. IRAs: Once an individual retirement account (IRA) owner reaches the age of 70 1/2, he or she must begin taking "required minimum distributions" from the account and pay tax on the amount withdrawn. However, a surviving spouse beneficiary may roll over the funds to his or her own IRA and postpone withdrawals until he or she is age 70 1/2.

This means the funds may continue to grow on a tax-deferred basis for a longer period of time. Alternatively, a surviving spouse may take out funds from an inherited account over five years if the deceased spouse was under age 70 1/2 at the time of death.

The Windsor decision now ensures that a surviving spouse of a same-sex marriage has the same rights as a surviving spouse of a traditional marriage, thereby providing him or her with greater flexibility. These basic rules also apply to survivors of qualified retirement plans described above.

4. Employee benefits: Employees may be eligible for various fringe benefits, most prominently employer-provided health insurance. Previously, if a health insurance plan covered a same-sex spouse of an employee, the employee spouse was taxed on the value of the coverage. Now, the coverage is tax-free just like it is for other spouses. Same-sex employees who paid employment taxes on gross income attributable to health coverage for their same-sex spouses might be eligible for an adjustment or reimbursement from their employers.

A same-sex spouse may also obtain continuation of health insurance coverage, under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), if coverage terminates due to a qualified event. In the past, continuation of COBRA coverage wasn't available.

Similarly, an employee may now pay health coverage premiums for his or her same-sex spouse on a pre-tax basis under an employer-sponsored cafeteria plan. One potential downside, however, is that same-sex spouses will now be subject to a combined contribution limit for certain health savings accounts (HSAs) and flexible spending accounts (FSAs) that used to apply to each spouse on a individual basis. After Windsor, the maximum contribution amount applies to the combined contributions of the same-sex spouses. Additional guidance is expected shortly on treatment for same-sex couples on other employee benefits.

5. Income taxes: In recent guidance, the IRS states that a same-sex couple will be treated like a traditional married couple if they've entered into a marriage in a state where such a marriage is legal (Revenue Ruling 2013-17). Therefore, it makes no difference if the couple resides in a state where same-sex marriages are currently not legal. Under the new ruling, legally married same-sex couples must file joint federal income tax returns for 2013, unless they choose to file separately as a married couple.

A same-sex couple may now file an amended tax return for an open tax year, but there's no legal obligation to do so if filing as married would increase their tax liability. The new ruling clarifies that couples can choose to leave their tax returns the way they were when initially filed. More guidance from the IRS will be forthcoming.

Filing as a married couple versus filing as two single individuals may increase federal income taxes for the two spouses -- or reduce them -- depending on the income of each. When their incomes are combined, certain itemized deductions and tax credits that same-sex couples qualified for as single taxpayers may be phased out or eliminated as married taxpayers. In addition, although legally married same-sex couples must file as spouses for federal tax purposes, they may still need to file as single for state tax purposes.

6. Estate and gift taxes: In Windsor, estate taxes were at the crux of the matter. Under federal law, an unlimited marital deduction shields transfers between spouses from estate or gift tax. Same-sex couples now have the same rights to the unlimited marital deduction as traditional couples.

This opens up other estate planning opportunities for same-sex couples. For example, under the "portability" provision in the current law, the estate of a surviving spouse is entitled to the unused portion of a deceased spouse's federal estate tax exemption. The portability provision may be incorporated into wills and trusts involving same-sex couples. In addition, same-sex spouses can now give joint gifts under the annual gift tax exclusion, effectively increasing the amount that may be given to a recipient without current gift tax liability. Same-sex spouses also can file amended estate and gift tax returns to claim additional tax benefits they were formerly denied before the Windsor decision.

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