The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act means same-sex couples who are legally married will now be eligible for federal benefits, and significantly changes their financial planning options. Same-sax couples now have access to the same retirement benefits, tax breaks and health coverage as married heterosexual couples.
“This creates a level playing field,” says Frank Fantozzi, CEO of Planned Financial Services. “But what got lost in all of the excitement is that the definition of marriage is set at the state level.”
Wednesday’s court ruling means same-sex couples will have more options when it comes to their financial planning, but only applies to couples living in states that recognize same-sex marriage, which is currently 13.
How the ruling will impact couples’ finances will vary. Anna Pfaehler, certified financial planner and client service manager at Palisades Hudson, says not all same-sex couples will benefit from the law.
“It’s case-by-case, this ruling is not always a slam dunk for couples. This is a tossup, but will hopefully work out for people.”
Here are some of the things experts say same-sex couples should be considering after Wednesday’s ruling.
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Same-sex couples with at least one partner with a high-net worth can now have more financial planning tools at their disposal, says financial planner John O’Meara. They can now take advantage of the estate tax exemption, and leave one another an unlimited estate without being taxed.
“This is the number one: the federal estate tax exemption,” O’Meara says. “It’s only a problem right now for someone with an estate tax of more than $5 million, but the tax benefit would come now if the person dying has an estate with that worth or more.”
In states that recognize same-sex marriage, married couples will have the option to file their taxes as either married jointly and married individually, according to Fantozzi.
“Your tax bill might be smaller if you file separately or jointly, but they never had an opportunity to calculate these benefits before,” he says. “There are now positive impacts that can potentially lower their costs per year.”
For pure income tax filing purposes, O’Meara says the impact will be more neutral. “When it does help, it really matters,” he says.
Social Security and Benefits
The ruling is important especially for low-income people, says Pfaeler, as this group will now receive benefits in the wake of the ruling.
“Being able to have Social Security benefits as a partner will impact a lot of people, especially on the lower-end of the income spectrum,” she says. “You will have benefits as a partner, whereas you previously might not have had any.”
O’Meara also notes that if one spouse dies, and he or she had higher Social Security benefits, the remaining partner can now claim them.
There is now also the ability to stretch out an IRA account, says O’Meara.
“If I die and leave my spouse my IRA, she can basically claim it as her own,” he says. “She doesn’t have to take it if she is not of retirement age, and can choose to stretch it out further. This is an under-appreciated benefit.”