The U.S. Supreme Court struck down section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Under DOMA, same-sex couples legally married in a state or country that authorized same-sex marriage were not eligible for important federal benefits available to heterosexual couples. Such benefits include filing joint income tax returns, health care and pension benefits, and the ability to transfer assets to one another free of estate or gift taxes. This historic Supreme Court decision now permits married same-sex couples in New York to receive important federal benefits that were previously denied to them.
The case before the Court involved Edith Windsor, (now 84 years old), whose same-sex spouse died in 2009 leaving Edith her entire estate. The couple had been together since the late 1960s, were legally married in Canada in 2007, and New York recognized the validity of their marriage. Because their marriage was valid under New York law, Windsor sought to claim the estate tax exemption for surviving spouses. She was barred from doing so by Section 3 of DOMA, which provided that the term “spouse” only applies to a marriage between a man and woman. The Internal Revenue Service thus found that the exemption did not apply to same-sex marriages, and compelled her to pay $363,000 in estate taxes. Edith sued, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the DOMA provision unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court decision does not require States to legalize same-sex marriage; it simply says that the U.S. government must treat same-sex couples who are legally married in a state or country that authorizes such marriages, the same as it would treat heterosexual couples.