What Do America’s Gay Families Get Now That DOMA Is Dead?

What does the repeal of DOMA mean for American’s legally married gay couples?

Far from sexy, the repeal of DOMA by the Supreme Court will mostly affect important but boring things, like taxes. Photo: Agrilifetoday

The Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996 under President Bill Clinton, ruled that, from the perspective of the federal government, marriage was defined as being between a man and a woman. This Act operated independently of the marriage laws used in individual states—13 of which (including DC) have laws that allow gay marriageThe Supreme Court of the Unites States decided 5 to 4 today to get rid of DOMA, ruling that the Act is unconstitutional. Here’s the court syllabus describing the decision:

DOMA’s principal effect is to identify and make unequal a subset of state-sanctioned marriages. It contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not others, of both rights and responsibilities, creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State. It also forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect.

…DOMA’s history of enactment and its own text demonstrate that interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages, conferred by the States in the exercise of their sovereign power, was more than an incidental effect of the federal statute. It was its essence.

…DOMA is unconstitutional as a deprivation of the equal liberty of persons that is protected by the Fifth Amendment.

In states where same-sex marriage had been passed into law, gay couples were forced by DOMA to live in legal limbo—for matters of the state they were considered married, but for federal programs they were not.

The elimination of DOMA by the Supreme Court today will affect the lives of legally married gay couples across the United States in a number of important ways:


United States vs. Windsor, the case that brought about today’s decision at the Supreme Court, was at base a case about taxes. Married in Ontario, Canada, in 2007, Edith Windsor and her wife Thea Spyer lived in New York. When Spyer died, Windsor had to “pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes on her inheritance of her wife’s estate,” said Policy Mic. If Windsor and Spyer’s wedding had been recognized by the federal government, “she would have paid no federal estate taxes.”

With the repeal of DOMA, gay marriages will now be treated in exactly the same was as heterosexual ones when it comes to taxes, including both income and estate taxes.

Medicare and Social Security

The definition of marriage imposed by DOMA also made retirement and Medicare more difficult for gay couples. The Fiscal Times:

DOMA, which defines marriage as between a man and woman, disqualifies gay couples from tax and Medicare incentives currently offered to straight couples. They also are unable to claim certain Social Security benefits and face certain restrictions with Roth IRAs.

The elimination of DOMA will, again, put legally married same-sex couples on even standing with legally married heterosexual couples.


When an American marries a non-U.S. citizen, that opens a path for the foreign half of the pair to immigrate into the United States. With immigration being a federal concern, DOMA’s definition of marriage prevented same-sex couples from seeking immigration visas. With DOMA’s elimination, gay couples can now legally seek visas.

Military Benefits

The benefits offered to servicemembers is another concern of the federal government that was affected by DOMA. The Act, says Stars and Stripes, “banned federal benefits for same-sex marriages, so despite military members now being able to serve openly, their domestic partners have been ineligible for many of the benefits the military provides families, such as health care, survivor payments and on-post housing.”

The repeal of DOMA means that the military is now free to move in the direction in which it was already going.

Despite the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s proclamation earlier this year that “discrimination based on sexual orientation no longer has a place in the military,” the Pentagon was limited in what benefits it could legally provide same-sex couples because of DOMA. In February, the Pentagon gave partners of gay troops military ID cards, access to base and other benefits that it could legally provide.

The high court’s ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional frees the Pentagon to follow through on what Panetta laid out shortly before he left office. If DOMA no longer applied, he wrote in a memo, “it will be the policy of the Department to construe the words “spouse” and “marriage” without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of their sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be given full military benefits.”

What the Repeal of DOMA Won’t Do

The Supreme Court’s decision to kill DOMA will not affect the legality of same-sex marriage anywhere in the United States. Gay marriage will remain a state-by-state decision. The change means that the federal government will now follow each state’s individual definition of marriage. The elimination of DOMA, says Glaad, “will mean the federal government has to recognize the legal marriages of same-sex couples. Such a ruling will not require any state that to legalize marriage equality that has not already done so.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

The United States Isn’t the Only Country Asking the Gay Marriage Question

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.