Last week, the US Supreme Court issued an historic and landmark ruling in the case of US v. Windsor. It has been hailed in the media as the demise of the Defense Of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), and celebrated as an extension of more than 1,000 federal benefits to same-sex couples.
In US v. Windsor, Edith Windsor brought suit against the US government after she was ordered to pay $363,000 in US estate tax upon the death of her wife Thea Spyer. Edith and Thea were legally married in Canada in 2007, but the US federal government did not recognize their marriage when Thea passed away in 2009. Under DOMA gay marriage was not recognized, even if it was legal in the jurisdiction where it was performed. This lack of recognition meant that Edith could not take advantage of the marital deduction that would have allowed her to inherit from her wife without paying US estate tax.
In its ruling on June 26th, the US Supreme Court ruled that the US federal government could not discriminate against same-sex married couples in the administration of its federal laws and benefits as previously dictated by DOMA. Same-sex couples, who are legally married in one of the 13 states that recognize gay marriage, or a country like Canada, now have access to the same federal protections and benefits as a heterosexual married couple.
The demise of DOMA will bring with it a multitude of changes under US tax law. We will not attempt to enumerate all of them here, though we will provide a brief overview of key changes for our Canadian and American clients.
i. US Estate Tax
The case of US v. Windsor was based on the US estate tax, which is imposed by the US federal government on both US citizens and residents, as well as non-residents who own US assets worth more than $60,000 USD. Currently US citizens and residents with less than $5.25 Million USD in worldwide assets do not owe US estate tax on death. Canadians with worldwide assets of $5.25 Million USD or less receive a unified credit under the Canada-US Tax Treaty that works to eliminate any US estate tax owed on their US property.
Under federal law a US citizen may pass his entire estate to his US citizen spouse tax-free upon death. Up until last week this rollover was unavailable to same-sex couples.
Canadian same-sex couples should now benefit from the Canada-US Tax Treaty provisions that provide a marital credit to the surviving spouse. This allows for a doubling up of credit against any potential US estate tax due on US property. Now a Canadian same-sex spouse can inherit a worldwide estate worth up to $10.5 Million USD and should see little to no tax on US assets due upon the death of the first spouse.
ii. Gift Tax
The US imposes a tax on gifts if they exceed $14,000 USD per recipient per year. There is an exemption for gifts between spouses, which are generally not taxable.
Gifts made in the US between non-US citizen non-resident spouses are taxable, but the annual exemption is $139,000 USD instead of $14,000 USD. Canadian spouses who gift each other US property, US corporate stocks, etc. may gift up to $139,000 USD per year without incurring US gift tax.
These exemptions have now been extended to same-sex couples, expanding their ability to use gifting for tax and estate planning.
iii. US Income Tax
Many Canadians move to the US each year, in part because of the lower personal tax rates. In the US spouses are allowed to engage in a form of income splitting by filing a joint income tax return. By filing jointly, married couples are also generally able to take advantage of further credits and deductions not afforded to individual or single filers. Being able to file jointly can be highly tax advantageous.
Previously, same-sex couples had to file either separately or as head of household. Now they have the option of filing jointly as spouses, and gaining access to the aforementioned income splitting, credits and deductions.
Couples may file up to three years of amended US Income Tax returns if they believe that they would have been entitled to a larger tax return by filing jointly in those years.
iv. Other Tax Benefits
In the US most individuals receive health insurance through their employer at least up until they qualify for US Medicare at age 65. Previously, if the employer sponsored health insurance plan covered the same-sex spouse as well, then it was considered a taxable benefit. Such coverage will now also be tax-free for same-sex couples.
Among the many benefits now extended to same-sex couples are a variety of “Retirement Benefits.”
i. Social Security and Medicare Benefits
With the end of DOMA, same-sex couples may now qualify for retirement, death, and disability Social Security benefits based on their spouse’s qualifying US employment history. For example, same-sex couples that do not have the required US employment history to qualify for US Social Security benefits on their own may now qualify for spousal Social Security benefits based on their spouse’s qualifying employment history. These spousal Social Security benefits are typically equal to 50% of the Social Security benefits received by the spouse with the qualifying employment history.
Additionally, spouses can qualify for US Medicare based on only one spouse’s qualifying US employment. This allows access to premium-free, or reduced-premium, health coverage in retirement.
Previously these important retirement benefits were not available to same-sex spouses.
ii. Individual Retirement Accounts
Important changes to the rights and recognition of spouses under US retirement savings plans result from the end of DOMA. Same-sex couples will now be recognized under 401(k), 403(b), IRA, Roth IRA, and similar plans. Spouses will be required to give their consent for any non-spouse beneficiary designations for these accounts. They will be treated as spouses for purposes of determining required distributions. For example, an inheriting same-sex spouse will not have to begin IRA distributions until age 70 ½, whereas previously he would have had to begin required distributions immediately as would any non-spouse beneficiary.
One of the biggest questions after the US Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA was whether there would be immediate changes to US immigration policy. Previously the US government did not recognize same-sex couples for immigration purposes. This meant that a US citizen spouse could not sponsor his husband for immigration to the US as a permanent resident (a.k.a. green card holder).
Last week, shortly after the ruling on DOMA, Alejandro Mayorkas, the director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) announced at the American Immigration Lawyers Association annual conference that the USCIS would begin issuing green cards to qualifying same-sex couples.
As of Friday, June 29, 2013, USCIS began issuing green cards to same-sex spouses. USCIS has stated that it has been keeping a record of spousal green card petitions denied only due to a same-sex marriage for the past two years. It is expected to reopen and reconsider these spousal sponsorship petitions that were previously denied due to same-sex marriage.
The demise of DOMA is exciting news for Americans, and Canadians with US ties. It provides same sex couples a wealth of new tax and estate planning opportunities, not to mention new opportunities for retirement and immigration planning. It is not too early to review your current planning, and take advantage of these changes.Altro Levy LLP Copyright 2014