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The IRS/Treasury Department Announcement & Estate Planning

On August 29, 2013, the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") issued Revenue Ruling 2013-17. The ruling establishes that the IRS will recognize same-sex marriages for all federal tax purposes regardless of where the couple lives, as long as the couple was married in a jurisdiction that recognizes such marriages. So, for example, if a couple was married in Connecticut (a recognizing state), but now live in Kentucky (a non-recognizing state), they will receive the same federal tax treatment as heterosexual couples residing in Kentucky. The ruling clarifies that a "state of celebration" approach will be used versus a "state of residence" rule. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew says the decision "[a]ssures legally married same-sex couples that they can move freely throughout the country knowing that their federal filing status will not change." It is important to note that, according to the ruling, "marriage" does not include a registered domestic partnership, civil union or other similar arrangement. The ruling applies to all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor, including: filing status, estate tax exemptions, personal and dependency exemptions, the standard marriage deduction, IRA contributions, earned income tax credits and employee benefits.

The ruling came on the heels of the Supreme Court's June 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor and is meant to address some of the confusion that Windsor left in its wake. As background, before Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA"), marital status for federal income tax purposes was defined by state law. Section 3 of DOMA banned same-sex couples from being recognized as "spouses" for all federal law purposes. Windsor ruled Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional; however, the decision did not require states to recognize same-sex marriages. Thus, since June, state and federal agencies have been wondering how to deal with same-sex marriages in non-recognizing states. With the Revenue Ruling, much-needed guidance has arrived.

From the estate planning perspective, there are now several more options that same-sex couples can use to their advantage. First, same-sex spouses are now eligible for the marital deduction, which means that they may transfer as much as they want to their spouse (in life and in death) without incurring federal estate or gift tax, provided that the recipient spouse is a U.S. citizen.

Another benefit is the use of "gift-splitting." Any individual can give up to $14,000 each year to as many people as they choose without incurring gift tax. Heterosexual spouses, and now same-sex spouses, can combine their $14,000 to jointly give $28,000 to individuals tax-free.

Same-sex spouses will also now get to take advantage of an estate planning tool known as "portability." Portability allows a widow or widower to use any unused estate tax exclusions (capped at $5.25 million for 2013) of their spouse who died in addition to their own. The unused exclusion must be transferred to the surviving spouse and an estate tax return must be filed (by the executor) within nine months of the spouse's death, even if no tax is due.

The ruling also has a myriad of other implications for taxes and employee benefits that should be carefully considered by same-sex couples. There are still lingering questions about how other agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, will address benefits post-Windsor. If you have questions about estate planning, do not hesitate to contact the experienced estate planning and administration lawyers at McBrayer.


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