Equality under the law is sometimes measured in incremental steps. For Florida's same-sex couples, one of those steps came this week when the Treasury Department announced that legally married gay and lesbian couples will be recognized for federal income tax purposes no matter where they live. This clears up what might have been a confusing tax season for Florida's same-sex couples who were married in other states. But it should be just the beginning of the federal government sweeping away barriers to same-sex married couples enjoying all the legal rights and responsibilities of their union.
The Internal Revenue Service rule change was prompted by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the law that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. Since then, the Obama administration, which refused to defend the law before the court, has been clarifying federal rules that condition rights and benefits on marital status. To the extent possible, those efforts are focused on treating same-sex couples on a par with opposite-sex couples, even in states such as Florida where gays and lesbians cannot legally marry.
The IRS determination is the broadest so far. For the 2013 tax year, same-sex spouses will be considered married for tax purposes. They will have to file jointly or as married but filing separately as individuals. This will help or hurt couples' pocketbooks depending upon their circumstances. Single-earner families typically benefit taxwise from marriage, while a couple in which each person makes a similar income will often experience the so-called marriage penalty. Still, the decision is a boost to gays and lesbians in the 37 states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. Whether the federal government would use where a couple got married or their place of residence to determine marital status for benefits had been an open question after DOMA was struck down.
The momentum is clearly in one direction: to normalize same-sex marriage across the federal government. Same-sex couples won another benefit the same day from the Health and Human Services Department. For married gay and lesbian couples who are both in a Medicare Advantage plan, they will be entitled to treatment and equal coverages at the same nursing home. This might seem obscure, but it can have a major impact on a couple's lives together.
Still, there are plenty of speed bumps before full equality is achieved. For example, the Social Security Administration determines to what extent spouses receive benefits by referring to their "place of residence." That excludes same-sex couples in Florida and 36 other states. But it isn't always up to the federal agency to change a law's application. In some cases additional litigation or new congressional enactments will be required.
President Barack Obama has encouraged the administration at all levels to carry out the Supreme Court's ruling and end differential treatment. Florida couples who marry outside the state will have to wait for the Florida law to change to receive state benefits. But there is no reason for the federal government to hold back its recognition in any way.