The Ultimate Guide to Gay Marriage Laws

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 The Ultimate Guide to Gay Marriage Laws

Marriage equality refers to legally recognizing marriage between individuals of the same sex. In the United States, same-sex marriage is recognized across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Regrettably, despite this legal recognition, discrimination is still a barrier that same-sex couples may face when exercising their legal rights.

Legal Progress for Marriage Equality in the U.S.

In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was instituted by Congress, defining marriage at the federal level as a legal union between one man and one woman. This law affected federal benefits available to married individuals.

Massachusetts was the first state to break away from DOMA’s restrictions and legalize same-sex marriage in 2003. Following in its footsteps between 2008-2009, California, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and the District of Columbia also legalized same-sex marriage.

A significant shift occurred in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a portion of the DOMA legislation in the case of U.S. v. Windsor. The court held that the Act violated the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses by limiting marriage benefits to only heterosexual couples. This ruling removed all federal barriers for same-sex couples married in a state where such marriages were legalized.

Post this ruling, multiple states followed suit in legalizing same-sex marriage, leaving only 20 states where it remained illegal until a decisive ruling in 2015. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges, determined that states prohibiting same-sex individuals from obtaining a marriage license violated the U.S. Constitutional provisions of Due Process and Equal Protection.

Thus, all states, including the District of Columbia, were mandated to allow same-sex individuals to apply for marriage licenses and not discriminate against them. This ruling also meant same-sex marriages had to be recognized across states, similar to heterosexual marriages.

Legal Rights and Privileges Afforded to Same-Sex Spouses

Same-sex couples enjoy the same legal rights and privileges as their heterosexual counterparts, including the following.

Property Rights

Depending on the state’s property laws, same-sex spouses are generally entitled to an equitable share of their spouse’s property accumulated during the marriage. For example, if one partner acquires a house during the marriage, that property is typically considered marital property and would be divided between the two spouses in the event of a divorce.

Parenting Rights

Most states recognize the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. For instance, if a same-sex couple in New York decided to adopt a child, both partners would have equal legal parenting rights. Furthermore, if a child is born to one parent during the marriage, the non-biological parent may also have legal parenting rights. For example, if one woman in a same-sex marriage gives birth to a child, her spouse has the same rights to that child as she does, even if she isn’t the biological parent.

Divorce Rights

Same-sex spouses have the same rights and protections as heterosexual couples during divorce. This means they have equal access to spousal support, child custody, and property division. For example, a same-sex couple divorcing in California would divide their assets and debts equally, just as a heterosexual couple would.

Insurance Coverage

Same-sex couples are entitled to health insurance coverage that extends to spouses. This means that if a same-sex spouse has an employer-provided health insurance plan, they can add their partner to this plan. Similarly, same-sex couples can include their spouse when obtaining auto, life, or homeowner’s insurance. For instance, if one partner has a life insurance policy, they can list their same-sex spouse as the beneficiary.

Tax Benefits

Same-sex couples, like heterosexual couples, can file their taxes jointly. This typically allows for larger standard deductions than single filers. For example, if a same-sex couple earns $100,000 jointly, they would be taxed less than if they each earned $50,000 and filed separately.

Inheritance Rights

A surviving spouse in a same-sex marriage can inherit their deceased spouse’s estate even without a proper will. If a same-sex spouse dies without a will in Texas, their surviving spouse would still inherit their property, just as a heterosexual spouse would.

Marital Privilege in Court

Same-sex spouses can refuse to testify against their spouse in court. For example, if one spouse in a same-sex marriage is charged with a crime, the spouse can invoke marital privilege and refuse to provide potentially incriminating testimony.

Medical Power of Attorney

In a situation where one spouse becomes incapacitated, the other spouse, regardless of their sex, has the right to make important medical decisions on their behalf. For instance, if one spouse in a same-sex marriage is in a coma, the other spouse can continue or stop life-sustaining treatments.

Extra examples of rights include:

  • Social Security benefits: Same-sex spouses may be eligible for Social Security benefits based on their spouse’s work record, similar to heterosexual couples. If one spouse in a same-sex marriage has a higher earning record, the other spouse can receive benefits based on that record.
  • Immigration benefits: If one partner in a same-sex marriage is a U.S. citizen and the other is a foreign national, the U.S. citizen can sponsor their spouse for a family-based immigrant visa.
  • Family leave benefits: Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), eligible employees can take unpaid leave for specified family and medical reasons. This includes caring for a spouse, which applies equally to same-sex marriages. For example, if a same-sex spouse becomes seriously ill, their partner can take leave to care for them.
  • Hospital visitation rights: Hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding must allow patients to have visitors of their choosing and cannot discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This means that a person in a same-sex marriage has the right to visit their spouse in the hospital, just like in a heterosexual marriage.

Alternatives to Marriage Equality

Even though marriage equality has been a goal for many, some alternatives offer some, though not all, of the rights and benefits. These alternatives include Cohabitation, Common Law Marriage, Civil Unions, and Domestic Partnerships.

Divorce Proceedings for Same-Sex Spouses

The divorce process for same-sex spouses is the same as for heterosexual couples. The grounds for divorce, including irreconcilable differences, adultery, abuse, and imprisonment, apply equally to all couples. Parental rights and custody issues are also addressed similarly, although complexities may arise concerning birth certificates or biological parentage.

Should You Consult a Lawyer Regarding Marriage Equality Rights?

A family lawyer can guide you in understanding the rights and obligations of a legal marriage and assist with divorce and custody disputes if needed.

If you have experienced discrimination due to your same-sex status, a civil rights lawyer can help you understand your rights and potentially file a lawsuit if required.

If you are in a same-sex marriage and are considering divorce or separation, a family lawyer can help you navigate the process and address issues such as property division, alimony, and child custody arrangements.

For same-sex couples looking to adopt children or establish parental rights, a family lawyer can guide you through the legal process and protect your rights as parents.

For any legal concerns, consider contacting a professional through LegalMatch to find the right lawyer near you.


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