SCOTUS Has Spoken: DOMA’s Definition of Marriage is Unconstitutional

picture of marriage equalityToday’s historic SCOTUS ruling marks a monumental step in the marriage equality movement. The Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor puts an end to the federal definition of marriage under the Defense of Marriage Act or “DOMA,” which limited marriage to a union between a man and a woman. Now, same-sex couples that are legally married in any of the 13 states that recognize gay marriage (or D.C.) are considered “married” in the federal government’s eyes, and can enjoy the same federal benefits that opposite-sex married couples do, including immigration status, Social Security benefits and federal tax benefits.

The DOMA case involved Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, a lesbian couple that was married in Canada in 2007 – after being in a relationship for 40 years. When Spyer died in 2009, Windsor was forced to pay $363,053 in taxes on Spyer’s estate, which she would not have had to pay if she’d been Spyer’s husband. She argued that DOMA, which prevents her from being considered Spyer’s spouse for federal purposes, cost her $363,053.

In a 5-4 decision, with the majority opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, SCOTUS found that the section of DOMA defining marriage as between a man and a woman violates the Equal Protection Clause and is therefore unconstitutional.

There are still some questions left to be answered, including whether the feds will recognize same-sex marriages based on the “place of celebration” – where the couple was married, or based on the “place of residence” – where the couple resides. For example, how will the feds treat the union of a same-sex couple that married legally in Rhode Island (place of celebration) but then moved to Texas (place of residence), where same-sex marriage is not recognized?

There is no clear answer at the moment, but some legal analysts suggest that because the federal government currently uses the place of celebration standard (not taking into account where a couple later resides) for most federal benefits, they will likely continue to do so. However, that question is reserved for another day. Right now, millions of Americans across the nation, both gay and straight, are cheering the demise of DOMA – described best, I think, by President Obama as “Righting the wrong . . . of discrimination enshrined in law.”

Next up:  Gay Marriage to Resume in California.

To learn more about the DOMA decision and how it may impact your right to federal benefits, check out The Supreme Court’s DOMA Decision on Nolo.com.