The DOMA Case and Its Impact on Family Law and Estate Planning for Same-Sex Couples in Michigan

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In a ruling issued June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court found section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, 110 Stat 2419 (“DOMA”) unconstitutional as it defines “marriage” and “spouse” for purposes of federal law and regulations in terms of opposite-sex couples. United States v. Windsor, ___ S.Ct. ___. The full implications of this, especially in Michigan where marriage is legally defined as between one man and one woman, remain unclear.

Windsor involves a dispute over a tax refund. Specifically, a surviving partner in a same-sex marriage sued the federal government in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York for a refund of taxes paid after her deceased spouse’s estate’s claim for a marital deduction was denied because of Section 3 of DOMA. This section defines “marriage” for purposes of any federal law, or other regulation or directive, rule, or administrative interpretation, as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and “spouse” as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.” 1 U.S.C. §7. If the IRS looked to New York law to define marriage, the marital exemption would have applied. New York law recognizes same-sex marriages and under this state’s law, her marriage was deemed valid. She claimed that DOMA violated her Equal Protection rights under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the federal courts that considered this question agreed.

The majority opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy declares section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional because it created a sub-class of persons who were lawfully married in the state in which they resided, but, who were not entitled to the same treatment under federal law as those who were in a lawful marriage between persons of the opposite sex because their marriage was between two persons of the same sex. In the majority’s words, “DOMA writes inequality into the entire United States Code.”

The significance of this case remains unclear. The Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of state laws, like Michigan’s, which define marriage as between one man and one woman. Mich. Const. Art. 1, §25. Section 2 of DOMA, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states, was not challenged here, and still remains intact.

The Court did not make a ruling as to how “marriage” or “spouse” must be defined for purposes of federal law. The Court’s analysis emphasizes the tradition of allowing states to enact domestic relations law, as well as the significant number of rights given to “spouses” and the inherent inequality present when persons of the same sex are not included in this definition.

U.S. v Windsor raises many questions for the future of estate planning and family law for same-sex couples here in Michigan. Same-sex couples legally married in jurisdictions which recognize same-sex marriage, but now reside in states which do not allow same-sex marriages, such as Michigan, may challenge the dismissal of their divorce cases under the full faith and credit clause of the U.S. Constitution. The same full faith and credit argument may be used when same-sex couples legally married in another jurisdiction are denied a marital deduction in the processing of estate taxes. However, because the Supreme Court did not strike down Section 2 of DOMA, it is possible that the challenges may fail. Other questions also arise such as social security benefits, state benefits and federal benefits for same-sex couples. The full impact of the Windsor case will not be known until other courts have resolved these and other issues.

If you have any questions relating to your issues involving family law or estate planning, please call one of our attorneys in either of our Family Law or Estate Planning and Probate practice groups.


Written by: James F. Anderton, V, Mieke V. Weissert and Elizabeth R. Briggs

Posted in: Family Law / Estate Planning

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