The End of DOMA

Posted by Rebecca Levin, Esq. on Friday, July 19, 2013

Can you explain the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor?
United States v. Windsor was filed by Edith (“Edie”)Windsor. Edie was in a relationship of forty years with Thea Spyer. Thea and Edie were married in Toronto in 2007.  At the time of Thea’s death in 2009, the State of New York, where the couple lived, recognized their marriage. The IRS, however, denied Edie use of the spousal estate tax exception and as a result Edie was required to pay $363,053.00 in federal estate taxes on her inheritance of her wife's estate. Edie filed suit on the ground that, under the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages for the purpose of federal benefits.

The Supreme Court of the United States held that Section 3 of DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment because it had no purpose but to “disparage and injure” those whom the State of New York, by its marriage laws sought to protect. The Court wrote, “DOMA's principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.... By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition.”

In effect, the Supreme Court holding gave same-sex couples who are married access to federal rights and benefits.

The Supreme Court, however, noted that the regulation of domestic relations is traditionally left to the states and that the holding of United States v. Windsor was limited to “those lawful marriages” under state law.

Who does the federal government view as married for purposes of accessing federal right and benefits?
The federal government traditionally defers to the states in determining whether a couple’s marriage is valid. There is no one rule across all federal agencies. Some agencies look to the law of the state where a couple married (“place of celebration”) to determine whether a marriage is valid. Other agencies look to the law of the state where the couple is living now (“place of residency”). At this time, it seems that the majority of federal agencies such as the IRS will look to a person’s state of residency while some agencies such as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will look to place of celebration. More information regarding how different agencies are expected to determine a person’s marital status can be found here:

As a New Jersey resident in a civil union, what does the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor mean for me?
In New Jersey, same-sex couples can still not access marriage within the State of New Jersey. Instead, New Jersey couples may join in a civil union. Even for couples who marry out-of-state, their marriage is viewed as a civil union in the State of New Jersey. Federal regulations are silent with regard to their treatment of civil unions; therefore, it is believed that civil union couples will be viewed as unmarried by the federal government. While untested, there may be circumstances where a civil union may have access to benefit program by virtue of their civil union. For example, Social Security regulations provide that you are eligible for social security if you can inherit without a will under that state’s law as you would if you were a husband or wife. What federal rights and benefits civil union couples will have access to remains to be seen.

If you have specific about how the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor affects you, you should seek advice from a qualified attorney.

Rebecca Levin is an associate at Jerner & Palmer, P.C. (, with offices in Marlton and Philadelphia. Her practice is concentrated on Child Support & Custody, Divorce & Dissolution and Domestic Violence & Protection From Abuse.

Nothing contained in blog should be construed as legal advice. Because each person's situation is unique and because laws differ significantly from state to state, you should consult a lawyer in your area to obtain legal advice appropriate to your situation.

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