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Monday, February 22, 2010

Mass Attorney General asking Federal Judge to declare DOMA unconstitutional.

According to a Boston Globe article, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a request with the U.S. District Court last Thursday, February 19, 2010, to rule on the constitutionality of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The reasoning behind the A.G.'s request is that DOMA forces Massachusetts to discriminate against same-sex spouses in order to maintain certain federal funding for programs like Medicaid and Veteran's burials.

These are only two examples of how DOMA affects same-sex spouses. Despite Massachusetts law granting same-sex couples the right to marry, there are Federal benefits that traditional spouses enjoy which same-sex couples do not because of DOMA. Many of these differences are related to tax benefits for spouses. For example, spouses can transfer property between each other without certain tax consequences where non-spouses cannot.

This can be a particularly difficult issue in same-sex divorces as it relates to retirement accounts. Because retirement accounts are defined by Massachusetts law as martial property, divorces often result in a non-taxable transfer of retirement funds between ex-spouses. When the division is completed by a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) the transfer does not result in any tax consequences. But transfers between non-spouses of retirement funds are treated like a liquidation resulting in income tax and a tax penalty (if the plan participant is below retirement age). Since same-sex spouses are not spouses for federal purposes retirement account funds cannot be transferred without tax consequences.

Although you are unlikely to hear a lot of discussion relating to same-sex divorce in support of the same-sex marriage debate, the discrimination against same-sex spouses becomes even more evident when these spouses request the protection of divorce laws.

Even if you believe that states should have a right to decide the same-sex marriage issue state-by-state, it's hard to support discrimination by the Federal government of same-sex couples in the states that have already decided in favor of same-sex marriage. DOMA effectively throws the weight of the Federal government against same-sex marriage rather than remaining neutral on the issue. Good luck to the Mass A.G. in restoring at least some balance.

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