Both the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8 defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The result of the federal DOMA provision was to deny same-sex spouses the federal rights that are granted to opposite-sex couples. Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriages in California.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor, Executor of the Estate of Spyer, et al. and Hollingsworth, et al. v. Perry, et al. that the definitions in DOMA and Prop 8 were unconstitutional. These two decisions have an impact on certain types of estate disputes previously faced by the surviving partner in a same-sex marriage, for example:
- IRS tax disputes — The plaintiff in Windsor was denied the estate tax spousal exemption after the death of her same-sex spouse. This unjust result was reversed with the overturn of the DOMA definition.
- Social Security and other federal benefits denials — Same-sex spouses are now entitled to the same survivors benefits from the Social Security Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration and other federal programs as opposite-sex couples.
- California property matters — After Prop 8 was struck down, the California Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriages to immediately resume. Thus, property owned by same-sex spouses in California is distributed according to probate rules. Also, registered domestic partners are treated like married spouses for purposes of real property, family and estate laws.
- Out-of-state property matters — Unfortunately, property owned in a state that does not recognize same-sex unions is subject to a DOMA provision that remains intact, which permits states to not recognize same-sex marriage. In those states, a spouse’s right to the estate’s property could be successfully challenged if the couple failed to title it properly.
Even government officials may not be fully aware of the impact the fast-changing laws have on the rights of same-sex couples. For this reason, consider retaining an estate litigation attorney in Palo Alto to protect your interests during probate disputes.