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Supreme Court case will affect Massachusetts same sex couples

There has been much media hype over the pair of cases dealing with same sex marriage that were before the U.S. Supreme Court this week. The challenge to California's "Proposition 8," the voter initiative that banned same sex marriage in that state, has garnered a majority of the attention. But here in Massachusetts, same sex marriage has been the law since 2003. The second case, challenging the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, will likely be much more consequential for a same sex couple that is living here in Massachusetts.

DOMA is a federal law that, for the purpose of federal benefits, defines marriage as a union between and man and a woman. The practical effect of DOMA is that same sex partners are barred from receiving federal benefits, even if they are legally married under the laws of their state. While this may not seem consequential in the abstract, it can have numerous consequences in the personal lives of same sex couples in Massachusetts.

DOMA bars married same sex couples from receiving nearly 1000 federal benefits that are afforded to opposite sex couples. Among these rights, DOMA affects social security benefits, immigration rights and federal estate taxation.

The story of the woman bringing her case to the Supreme Court shows the effects of DOMA. The woman married her partner of 40 years. Unfortunately, her partner died only a few years later, leaving the woman her entire estate. The federal government levied taxes on the estate, which totaled over $350,000. The crux of the woman's argument is that this is a tax bill she would not have had to pay if she had been married to a man.

DOMA shows that even though same sex couples have many protections under Massachusetts state law, they still face differential treatment under federal law. The outcome of the case before the Supreme Court could have profound effects for same sex couples in the state. If the Court decides that DOMA is unconstitutional, the federal government will treat same sex couples who are legally married under Massachusetts law the same as opposite sex couples.

Source: Scotusblog.com, "Will the Court defend DOMA?: In Plain English," Amy Howe, March 25, 2013

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