Supreme Court Rules in Prop 8 and DOMA Cases

Jun 28, 2013 by

This week the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, known as DOMA, ruling that the equal protection doctrine rendered the law unconstitutional.  In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Kennedy, the Court  found that same-sex couples legally married in states allowing the unions could not be denied federal benefits.

The ruling directly affects the approximately 130,000 legally married, same-sex couples who were previously not entitled to federal benefits, as well as 1,100 federal statutes on veterans’ benefits, tax laws and family medical leave provisions. But Wednesday’s ruling is just the beginning.  How the DOMA ruling plays out given the minority of states currently allowing same-sex marriage, many such couples may still be ineligible to receive federal spousal benefits in the 37 states which do not currently permit such marriage, and of the 7 states which currently grant domestic partnerships or civil unions, there is no clear path.  Certainly further court cases on these subjects are to come.

The one clear outcome is that the absence of DOMA compels all same-sex couples to cautiously review their estate plans now and in the future, as the laws coming off and on the books will have direct and long term consequences in same-sex family succession, estate administration, tax, federal and state benefits, probate matters and more.

A victory was likewise handed to the opponents of California’s Proposition 8 which voters, by a narrow margin in 2008, approved the amendment of the State Constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.  As speculated, the Court found that, on the procedural ground of standing, the backers of Prop 8 had no right to defend the law in federal courts.  Lower federal courts had already ruled that Prop 8 was unconstitutional.  This ruling is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage nor an allowance for it anywhere but California.  However, like opponents must take note to the extent conflicts arise in other states over the codification of same-sex marriage.

The rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 are in many ways just the legal beginning of the consideration of these issues at the Federal level.  There is no question that the issues have long and winding paths ahead.