A new bill led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the U.S. Senate would make gay couples potentially eligible for a refund on their back taxes if they married more than three years before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.
The legislation, called the Refund Equality Act, would same-sex couples married in places like Massachusetts, which had marriage equality before the Supreme Court decision in the Obergefell case, could file amended tax returns back to the date of their marriage.
“For nearly a decade, legally married same-sex couples had to file their taxes as single persons, often paying more taxes than they would owe if they could file as married,” Warren said in a statement. “This bill is a simple fix to allow same-sex couples to claim the tax refunds they earned but were denied because of who they love.”
After the Supreme Court ruled against DOMA in 2013, then-President Obama directed his administration to extend federal spousal benefits to same-sex couples to the furthest extent possible under the law. Former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew allowed married same-sex couples throughout the country — even those in states at the time without marriage equality — to file taxes jointly for the first time.
Additionally, same-sex couples could file an amended return if they feel they would’ve receive a refund in one or more prior tax years for up to three years in the past: 2010, 2011, and 2012. Under some circumstances, such as signing an agreement with the Internal Revenue Service to keep the statute of limitations open, these couple might have been able to seek a refund from an earlier time.
The Refund Equality Act would extend the window period for a refund further back in time. Same-sex couples could file a joint return to seek a refund dating to the time of their marriage, which in Massachusetts could be as early as 2004.
Same-sex couples who wed in jurisdictions with marriage equality more than three years before the DOMA decision — Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and D.C. — could be eligible for a refund under the Refund Equality Act.
According to Warren’s office, an estimated $67 million in refunds could be available to married same-sex couples if the legislation becomes law.
It’s possible that under some circumstances, same-sex couples would have had to pay more in taxes if DOMA weren’t in place as a result of filing as married as opposed to single. Low and high-income couples can incur hefty marriage penalties — often when both spouses have similar incomes. It seems unlikely those couples would be eligible for a refund under the Refund Equality Act.
In the Senate, the legislation is co-sponsored by 30 senators — all Democrats. Among them are Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) leads the legislation in the U.S. House, where 39 other lawmakers have co-sponsored the bill.
“All legally married couples in this country deserve to be treated equally,” Neal said in a statement. “This bill would codify into law an important correction that would enable same-sex married couples to go back and claim the tax refunds and credits for which they qualify. The Supreme Court has ruled as such, and now it’s time for Congress to act and make sure all Americans are treated with the fairness and equality they deserve under the law.”
Read a fact sheet on the Refund Equality Act here.