Recently in Federal LGBT policy Category

April 4, 2011

Tax Time Extra Complicated for Same-Sex Couples

Filing tax returns is not that much fun for anyone, except maybe General Electric. But for same-sex couples, tax time is fraught with complications unique to relationships that are recognized by the state but not by the IRS--except sometimes. Confused yet? You should be.

In general, the IRS doesn't recognize same-sex marriages or marriage-equivalent domestic partnerships or civil unions for tax purposes. Same-sex spouses and registered partners must file their federal tax returns as single, even if they are allowed (or required) to file as married or partnered in the state in which they live. This results in many couples preparing dummy federal returns in order to have accurate information to put on their state returns--in other words, it results in them paying an expert tax preparer to run the numbers for a state return and a federal return that aren't coordinated.

For married or registered same-sex couples living in the three community property states that recognize same-sex relationships--California, Nevada, and Washington--things just got even more complicated with the IRS's decision that these folks must follow their states' community property rules relating to income on their federal tax returns, while still filing the federal return as single, separate taxpayers. 

This means that the couple must add up their combined incomes, divide the resulting amount in half, and each report half of the income on their federal returns. For many people this is good news, as the income averaging will mean that a higher earner might fall into a lower tax bracket. Experts say that most couples will benefit or break even, though couples who both earn close to the same amount won't benefit and will pay more for tax preparation. However, couples who do benefit get an extra break--they can go back and amend their returns as far back as 2007 using the community property numbers. For some, this will create quite a windfall. 

Most same-sex couples in community property states will need professional tax help--even self-help software Turbo-Tax recommends seeking personalized advice rather than using its tax program. 

March 30, 2011

USCIS Hold Ends As Quickly As It Began

Just two days ago, I blogged about an announcement from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that it would put on hold decisions about cases involving same-sex binational couples--a seeming big step away from the discriminatory policies based on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that have previously dominated the agency's decision-making. Here's an informative Daily Beast story about the hold.

It didn't exactly seem too good to be true--that status would be reserved for an actual repeal of DOMA. However, the hold was apparently too good for something, and it has already been lifted. USCIS announced on March 30, 2011, through press secretary Christopher S. Bentley, that, "The guidance we were awaiting ... was received last night, so the hold is over," and "we're back to adjudicating cases as we always have." Bentley went on to say that USCIS would continue to "enforce the law," in other words refuse to recognize same-sex marriages for purposes of approving green card applications.

Is this the last word on the subject? Not necessarily. With the Justice Department's new position that DOMA is unconstitutional, plans by members of Congress to seek repeal of DOMA, and various cases challenging DOMA winding their way through the U.S. court system, it's likely that the Supreme Court will rule on DOMA's constitutionality within the next few years--which will of course affect green card applications for married same-sex partners.

March 28, 2011

USCIS Puts Same-Sex Partner Green Card Cases on Hold

Responding to President Obama's recent statement regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) has asked its field offices to stop proceedings in any cases involving foreign partners married to same-sex spouses.  In other words, the USCIS will hold off on denying green cards in same-sex marriage cases, while awaiting further word on the status of DOMA. 

In February, the Department of Justice announced it would stop defending Section 3 of DOMA in court. Section 3 is the part of DOMA that stands the way of a citizen sponsoring a same-sex spouse for a green card. 

Last week, a New York immigration judge suspended the deportation of a same-sex spouse from Argentina so that the women could petition for recognition of their marriage under the new administration policy. 
March 10, 2011

House Republicans Vote to Defend DOMA

Because apparently they've got nothing better to do despite claiming a focus on jobs and economic development, the House GOP voted to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court in the wake of the Justice Department's announcement in February that the DOJ would no longer do so. 

The decision could cost millions of dollars as Congress and the House general counsel will likely hire outside counsel to defend the cases now before the court--currently numbered at 10. 

Seems like a questionable use of taxpayers' money while Congress struggles to pass a budget (the Republican version of which would cut services and jobs), especially given that the President and the administration's lawyer have said that they believe the law is unconstitutional and indefensible
February 23, 2011

Obama Says DOMA Unconstitutional

On orders from President Obama, the Justice Department will stop defending the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in cases now pending in the federal courts, based on the President's conclusion that the law is unconstitutional.

Attorney General Eric Holder today sent a letter to Speaker of the House Boehner explaining that the President and the Department of Justice have re-examined the law in light of two new cases and determined that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional "as applied to same-sex couples legally married under state law." Section 3 states that the federal government recognizes only marriages between a man and woman. 

The most significant conclusion set forth in Holder's letter is this one: "[T]he President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a heightened standard of scrutiny." This means that any law that treats people differently based on their sexual orientation must meet the highest legal standards--it's not enough that the law simply have a rational basis. Instead it must meet much more rigorous Constitutional tests. 

Other courts have applied strict scrutiny in marriage equality cases, but having the support of the President and the DOJ for this level of scrutiny is an enormous step forward. It also provides the basis for the President's turnaround--in the past, Holder said, the DOJ has defended DOMA cases because the level of scrutiny was lower. Having determined that heightened scrutiny applies, the administration is no longer able to defend the law. 

This means that two cases now proceeding through the federal courts will do so without opposition from the federal government. The Huffington Post reports that the DOJ will advise the courts in these two cases of the government's policy change. Here's a link to a Washington Post opinion piece about those cases. 
January 13, 2011

Passport Applications to Recognize the Reality that Same-Sex Families Exist

Parents applying for passports for their minor children will find a change starting February 1. Instead of simply having spaces for "Mother" and "Father" to state their names, the forms will say "Mother or Parent 1" and "Father or Parent 2." The Washington Post reported last Friday that references to "mother" and "father" would be removed entirely, causing a fuss from conservatives. In response, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton apparently decided to include both a gendered and a gender-neutral designation for each parent. 

It's cool to see the federal government adjusting its most important identity document in this way. Every step the feds take toward accepting the reality of same-sex families makes those families' lives a little bit easier and brings us a little bit closer to full equality. Given the post-election reality of state legislatures, these small steps on the federal level may be all we get for a while. 
January 7, 2011

Extra Taxes on Health Benefits for LGBT Employees--Where Do We Stand?

There are many hidden costs to being gay, and one of them is that employees who work for companies that offer domestic partner benefits must pay taxes on the value of those benefits unless the partner is considered a dependent (not a very common scenario). A married employee whose spouse is covered on the company insurance plan pays no tax on the value of the spouse's benefits. 

Recently, Internet behemoth Google,  Inc. began to reimburse its LGBT employees for the extra taxes, and a few other large companies followed suit. A New York Times blogger now provides a chart showing corporate progress on this issue, with a promise to update it periodically. 
June 29, 2009

Pride Roundup

Yikes! How has it been so long since I've posted, when there's so much going on out there? Here's a quick selection of interesting items from the last week.

On the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, the New York Times ran an article and an op-ed piece about the condition of gay rights in the U.S., both with the same basic premise: the American public is way ahead of the American government on the issue of rights for LGBT people. Adam Nagourney's Political Memo takes President Obama to task for failing to live up to his campaign promises on equality for the LGBT community; Frank Rich's op-ed rightly notes that "It's a press cliché that 'gay supporters' are disappointed with Obama, but we should all be. Gay Americans aren't just another political special interest group. They are Americans who are actively discriminated against by federal laws."

Last week, Representative Barney Frank introduced a new Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the House of Representatives. Read about it at Nolo's Employment Law Blog.

And this morning, President Obama is meeting with gay rights leaders at the White House to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. After the disappointments of the past month, that should be an interesting conversation.
May 24, 2009

Gay Diplomats to Receive Partner Benefits

Quietly, in my view (page A22 of the New York Times, page A18 of the San Francisco Chronicle), the State Department has promised to offer equal benefits and protections to the same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton acknowledged that "Like all families, our Foreign Service Families come in different configurations."

The news came in a memorandum from Clinton to an association of gay and lesbian Foreign Service officers. It's a long time in coming and a welcome change, one that addresses issues of basic fairness and, as Clinton also remarked, one that will support recruitment to the State Department.