By MICHELE ZAVOS & CODY PERKINS
Marriage is generally understood in our society as an emotional and social institution, signifying and celebrating the love and devotion between two people and demonstrating a commitment to that relationship above all others. But marriage is also a business and contractual relationship that is given great deference by the laws of our country, on both the federal, state, and local levels. Once a couple is married, spouses are no longer individuals, but part of a marital unit. On the federal level, there are more than 1,000 rights and responsibilities associated with marriage. On the state and local level, there are usually more than 400 such rights and responsibilities.
The “marital unit” is treated differently in the law than the two spouses were as individuals. For example, any income coming into the “marital unit” post-marriage, belongs presumptively equally to both spouses, no matter who earned the income. So, if one spouse saves money in retirement, the other spouse is entitled to one-half of that amount if the couple divorces. States and the District of Columbia may treat marriage somewhat differently if the couple divorces. Accordingly, spouses would be wise to execute a pre-nuptial agreement prior to their marriage, in order to define the couple’s agreements as to how their property would be divided in the event of divorce.
Other impacts of the marriage contract range from taxes to immigration to estate planning to children, and more. As same-sex couples take advantage of new opportunities to marry in the United States, these consequences can be welcome but confusing reminders of just how much marriage matters in American society.
Most of the federal government now recognizes marriages between same-sex couples as long as the marriage was valid where it occurred, known as the “place of celebration” rule. Locally, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Delaware have marriage equality, while Virginia and West Virginia do not. The federal government applies the “place of residence” rule in some instances, so couples living in non- marriage equality states (non-recognition states) do not have valid marriages under that rule. However, Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the federal government will make every effort to treat all validly married same-sex couples as married for federal government purposes.
Application of tax rates are one of the biggest impacts of marriage. Married couples must file either as married filing jointly, or married filing individually. As a general rule, if couples have a significant income disparity, marriage will reduce their taxes, but if the couple is relatively equal in income, marriage will increase those taxes. Married couples have no choice – they MUST file their taxes as married. Couples that are registered as Domestic Partners in the District of Columbia must also file their D.C. taxes as “married.” Married couples are also eligible for estate tax exemptions, now both on the federal level and in their state of residence if the state has marriage equality, like Edie Windsor. Married couples in Maryland are also exempt from Maryland’s inheritance tax. Also, after Windsor, a couple may be able to amend its federal tax returns to claim certain exemptions and to reduce income that had previously been taxed when the federal government did not recognize their marriage.
For same-sex couples wishing to have children, marriage creates a legal presumption of parentage, meaning that any child born or conceived to one spouse during the marriage is presumed to be the legal child of the other spouse. This can be extremely important to ensure that a non-birth parent continues to have a legal right to custody and decision-making power over the child, even in the event of divorce, or the birth parent’s death or incapacity. However, since not all states have marriage equality, we recommend that even married couples obtain a second-parent adoption or pre- or post-birth order so that their parental rights are recognized in all states.
Employee benefits, immigration, Social Security, the military, taxes, retirement rollovers, criminal matters, and of course, even more areas are impacted by marriage. The law continues to evolve, and there are about 45 lawsuits throughout the country, including two in Virginia, attempting to establish marriage equality in those states that still do not recognize our marriages. So, even if couples are married in one state, if they move to a non-recognition state, or perhaps are even traveling through such a state, their marriages will not be considered valid if a marriage issue arises in that state.
Marriage does not hold all the answers. As with everything, there may be downsides to getting married, and individual couples must decide for themselves whether the rewards outweigh the risks. For example, if one member of a couple is receiving alimony, that alimony generally will end at remarriage. Or if one member of the couple receives income-based government benefits, marriage may then disqualify that spouse from receiving those benefits. Couples should consult with an attorney before they marry to discuss the legal risks and rewards of marriage. But, of course, there is more to marriage than all of these rights and responsibilities. And sometimes, for some couples, marriage does come down to love and commitment, and the legal aspects are just secondary.
Michele Zavos is partner, Zavos Juncker Law Group, PLLC. Cody Perkins is a law clerk at the firm. The Zavos Juncker Law Group practices in all three local jurisdictions.