Same Sex Marriages: Are You Filing Your Taxes Properly?

by Poyner Spruill LLP

?In late 2013, I met with my first same sex couple clients since the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) last year.  If you recall, DOMA  was the federal law barring the federal government from recognizing same sex marriages legalized by states.  It was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court as violative of the Fifth Amendment.  The IRS issued a statement on August 29, 2013 that provided that same sex couples legally married in a jurisdiction that recognizes their marriage would be treated as married for federal tax purposes regardless of the laws of their domiciliary state.  As a result, same sex couples married in a state that legally recognizes their marriage will be entitled to the estate and gift tax marital deduction, and they must also file their federal income tax returns with the status of married or married filing separately.  (The Department of Labor issued a similar statement in Technical Release No. 2013-4, meaning that for purposes of ERISA, legally married couples are treated as married, regardless of the laws of their domiciliary state.)

North Carolina does not recognize same sex marriage as valid, so for purposes of North Carolina taxes, where does that leave our North Carolina-residing same sex couple clients that were legally married in another state?  NCDOR directive PD-13-1 provides that “Because North Carolina does not recognize same-sex marriage as valid… individuals who enter into a same-sex marriage in another state cannot file a North Carolina income tax return using the filing status of married. Such individuals who file a federal income tax return as married must each complete a separate pro forma federal return for North Carolina purposes with the filing status of single  to determine each individual’s proper adjusted gross income, deductions and tax credits allowed under the Code for the filing status used for North Carolina purposes.” 

My clients are considering getting married in a state that recognizes same sex marriage, but they want to understand the legal implications for them if they do.  They are concerned about the “marriage penalty” for federal income tax purposes and the complexity of having different laws and rules for federal and  state purposes. They do not have an estate tax problem, so the availability of the unlimited estate tax marital deduction is of no consequence to them. However, they are considering retitling the house currently owned by one of them into their joint names.  I cautioned them that such transfer would constitute a taxable gift to the extent the value of the interest transferred exceeded the donor owner’s $14,000 annual exclusion. In fact, one partner’s use of funds for the benefit of the other in excess of the donor-partner’s annual exclusion in any year will require the donor-partner to file a gift tax return. If they are legally married, there would be no taxable gifts in those circumstances due to the unlimited marital gift tax deduction. My clients each have a 401(k) plan, so if they were to marry, under ERISA, they must be designated beneficiary of each other’s accounts unless the spouse waives that right.

As an advisor, if you have same sex couple clients who have been married in a state that recognizes same sex marriage and they have paid taxes or used exemptions (income, gift or estate tax) based on separate status, you may consider whether they can and should file amended returns based on married filing status to recoup taxes or exemptions. And they should be advised to revisit their beneficiary designations and their estate planning documents if they have not done so already.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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