SEPTEMBER 2, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 33
Just a few weeks ago we wrote about some of the uncertainties facing legally married same-sex couples living in states (like Arizona) that refuse to recognize the validity of their marriages. If a legally-married couple moves to Arizona, we wondered, would their ability to receive some of the tax benefits available to married couples change just because their new state did not recognize or approve of their marriage? We suggested that same-sex couples ought to be aware of the problem, but assume that they should be able to enjoy the same benefits (and burdens, for that matter) available to their married heterosexual friends.
Well, the United States government weighed in on the subject this week, and the positions taken by two different federal agencies made it clear that a valid marriage is a valid marriage — at least in the federal government’s eyes. The result? Same-sex couples still need to pay extra attention to their estate planning choices, but their choices will be much more palatable.
On August 29, 2013, the Internal Revenue Service released Revenue Ruling 2013-17. Its bottom line: if you are legally married, even though your current state of domicile does not recognize it, you will be treated as married for all tax purposes. Period. Income tax, estate tax, gift tax — it makes no difference. You are married.
In our earlier newsletter we talked about a couple, married in Massachusetts, who had moved to Arizona. Could they file their federal income taxes as “married, filing jointly”? Could they list one another as beneficiary on their IRA or 401(k) accounts, relying on the ability of a spouse to roll those benefits over into a new IRA? Would they get the benefit of a full step-up in basis for income tax purposes, just like other married couples holding community property? It was not clear a week ago. Today it is clear. The answer in each case is “yes” — though perhaps a qualified “yes” in one or two of those cases.
Why a qualified yes? Mostly because community property titling is a special case. Yes, there are federal income tax benefits for married couples titling their assets as community property — but the availability of that option is governed by state property law. Arizona is one of the handful of states recognizing community property designations at all, and it limits the option to couples it thinks are married. If a same-sex couple, legally married in another state, attempts to title, say, real estate as community property (or community property with right of survivorship), will Arizona recognize that title?
We are not sure, and so suggest that the safe approach is to create a trust (probably a joint, revocable trust), provide that all the assets in the trust are held as community property, and title most assets to that trust. That does mean that same-sex couples will end up paying somewhat more for their estate planning than their married heterosexual friends — but they will get the same result at a relatively modest cost.
The other notable change on the federal level involves long-term care arrangements for Medicare recipients. It is far less expansive than the big IRA announcement, but reflects the same general approach: married same-sex couples are to be accorded the same benefits as married heterosexual couples, at least on the federal level.
An August 29, 2013, announcement from the Department of Health and Human Services affects Medicare Advantage beneficiaries. It is not very far-reaching, but it is nonetheless important. In cases where one spouse is already admitted to a skilled nursing facility (what most of us call a “nursing home”), when the second spouse requires placement he or she must be permitted to choose the same facility. In other words, Medicare Advantage plans must have rules supporting spouses’ ability to stay together. And those policies must apply to same-sex married couples, too — even if their marriages are not recognized in the state where they live.
Why is this modest change important? Because, like the IRS declaration, it indicates that the federal government will be extending protections to validly married same-sex couples regardless of their state of residence.
Legal rights and responsibilities are evolving quickly for same-sex marriage. The first few states permitting same-sex marriages debated whether to even permit out-0f-state couples to marry. In the next wave of legal developments, it seemed clear that couples living in Arizona probably would not benefit from traveling to, say, Canada or Iowa to get married, only to return to Arizona and have their marriages all but invalidated. This week’s announcements make it clear that a committed same-sex couple should seriously consider whether they want to get married in a friendlier jurisdiction, even if they intend to return to Arizona to live.
The federal pronouncements also make it that much more difficult for states like Arizona to continue to resist the pressure to change. If a legally married same-sex couple, living in Arizona, wants to get divorced, do they have access to the Arizona court system? The current legal thinking in Arizona is that they might be able to seek annulment of their marriage (which, in Arizona’s legal view, never validly existed), but not a divorce (or dissolution).
Consider, for instance, the dilemma facing Phoenix-area resident Anne Armstrong (not her real name) earlier this year. She and her partner Roberta Reynolds had been married in California, but Anne wished to end the marriage. She filed a petition for annulment of the marriage in the Arizona Superior Court in Phoenix. Roberta did not respond, but the Judge Eartha K. Washington nonetheless refused to annul the marriage. Because same-sex marriages are invalid in Arizona, ruled the judge, there was nothing she could do to help Anne end her California marriage.
The Arizona Court of Appeals reversed that decision and sent the case back to the judge for further proceedings to annul the marriage and divide the couple’s property. Atwood v. Riviotta, May 16, 2013. While Anne’s legal problems were addressed, the decision left two huge issues unresolved: (1) what about same-sex married couples who don’t want to end their marriages, and (2) why should the legal process for ending same-sex marriages be different in the first place? Furthermore, the Court of Appeals resolution was by an unpublished decision, meaning it could not even be cited as precedent for other, similar cases as they arise.
What about resolution of child custody issues, or property divisions? What about bigamy laws, or other societal norms affecting married couples? If a couple is permitted to file income tax returns as married under federal law, why should it be different for state income tax returns? The pressure on Arizona (and other resistant states) is intense: it is time for our legal system to deal with changes sweeping across the country, and the federal government’s pronouncements this week will add to that pressure.