Supreme Court's Gay Marriage Ruling Clarifies Some Questions for People with Disabilities

The U.S. Supreme Court recently released opinions in two cases dealing with gay marriage, and by striking down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the court has made it easier for same-sex married couples to access certain types of disability benefits. However, the ruling is not all good news for same-sex couples, because in certain cases being married could harm an applicants ability to qualify for needs-based services.

In United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court found that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that were legally entered into in one of the thirteen states (plus the District of Columbia) or thirteen countries that recognize them. Because of this ruling, legally married same-sex couples in these jurisdictions now have access to a range of federal benefits that they previously couldn't enjoy. For example, in the case that the Supreme Court decided, a woman was forced to pay a high estate tax when her wife passed away, while an opposite-sex married couple would have paid no tax at all. Now, all legally married couples, regardless of gender, enjoy the same estate and income tax benefits.

The Supreme Court's ruling opens up a host of disability benefits for same-sex married couples. For example, a person with a disability who is in a legal same-sex marriage can now receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits based on his spouse's work record as long as he meets the normal requirements for doing so.

Same-sex couples are now able to take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows a spouse to take up to 12 weeks off from work without repercussions to care for his ill or disabled partner. On top of this, same-sex spouses of federal government employees are now eligible for benefits through the Federal Employee Health Benefit system and spouses in private employment must also receive benefits from any employer that provides health benefits to opposite-sex spouses.

Because the Supreme Court's ruling is very new, it is impossible to answer several important questions about the scope of these new benefits. The biggest outstanding question is whether legally married same-sex couples are entitled to benefits regardless of where they live, or if they only qualify for benefits if they live in a state that recognizes same-sex unions.

In addition, there are several circumstances in which being married may make it harder to qualify for disability benefits. For instance, if a person needs Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), her income and assets are taken into consideration, along with her spouse's. Same-sex couples whose marriages were previously unrecognized by the federal government could, in some cases, only report the disabled person's income and resources, allowing the healthy spouse to keep a large estate without penalty. Now, those couples must typically report their joint incomes and resources, which could result in fewer benefits for the person with disabilities. However, in some cases, the pendulum could swing in the other direction. For example, if a person needs Medicaid to pay for her care in a nursing home, she can transfer some of her assets to her spouse without penalty. Prior to the Supreme Court's ruling, same-sex couples would have been penalized for making the same transfers, even though they were married.

There's a lot we don't know about how the Supreme Court's DOMA decision will play out. For now, the best advice is to stay in touch with your special needs planner as the law evolves.

Article Last Modified: 07/01/2013