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Gay Marriage: Next Financial Steps for Couples

June 26, 2015
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By Steve Branton

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The Supreme Court’s ruling on the rights of same-sex couples to marry carries important ramifications for the finances of gay couples around the country. How it affects a specific couple’s financial situation, however, depends on your current civil status and where you live.

Couples living in states that already recognized gay marriage might not see much direct impact. The big changes will come for the thousands of couples living in states that previously did not recognize gay marriage. Those states are Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas. (In addition, conflicting court decisions had left the status of gay marriage in Alabama up in the air before the Supreme Court ruling.)

If a couple in any of these states is unmarried and considering marriage, they would be wise to take the time to analyze the legal and financial implications of marriage, rather than rush to the altar, as we saw happen in California in 2013, when same-sex marriage became legal there.

From a purely financial perspective, marriage has some “cons,” particularly in the short term. These include potential changes in tax liabilities, “marriage penalties,” debt issues, community property considerations and potential reductions in financial aid for education. That said, there is also a vast expansion of “pros” that, depending on a couple’s situation, may greatly outweigh the cons. These include benefits in estate planning, gift transfers, retirement, health care, Social Security, Medicare, immigration, and homeownership, among others.

If a couple is in a legally recognized domestic partnership or civil union, they need to watch the news to see how their state responds to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Some states, such as Washington, have required couples in legal domestic partnerships to either marry or opt out once gay couples gained the right to marry. Others, such as California, have continued to allow couples to choose either marriage or domestic partnership.

Whether to remain in a domestic partnership/civil union or get married can be a complicated discussion. In some cases, there are benefits to domestic partnership over marriage, while in others, the benefits of marriage greatly outweigh the domestic partner designation. Again, it will depend on a couple’s individual financial situation, their long-term goals and the state they live in. Further research or professional consultation is recommended.

If a couple is already married but was living in a previous non-recognition state, the biggest change they should see is in their tax filings. They will need to file as married on both their federal and state tax returns (if they have a state income tax where they live). In the short term, they may need to adjust their tax withholdings and/or estimated tax payments to make sure they haven’t underpaid, particularly if they are in the higher income brackets and both spouses are working.

In the medium term, reviewing retirement beneficiary designations is important, since marriage invalidates prior beneficiary designations on federally administered retirement plans like 401(k) accounts. Checking with their employer’s benefits department about health care benefits should also be on their medium-term to-do list. In some cases, people in non-recognition states have been getting taxed on health care benefits when provided through their same-sex spouse’s employer. This should be phased out eventually nationwide.

In the longer term, reviewing titling of real estate and investment accounts and updating estate plans to capture all of the expanded benefits are recommended.

Image: Helen (left) and Drake Sterling celebrate the Supreme Court ruling at San Francisco City Hall. They married in 2013. By Karyne Levy/NerdWallet.