Urban Wire The Cost of Being Gay and Married
Erwin de Leon
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Photo by Simona Combi, Urban Institute

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in two landmark gay rights cases. At issue in Hollingsworth v. Perry is the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-gender marriage, while in United States v. Windsor, at issue is whether Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law for all citizens.

DOMA’s Section 3 limits marriages to those between a woman and a man. This means that lesbians and gays legally married in states that allow same-sex marriage are denied the 1,138 federal benefits, rights, and privileges enjoyed by couples whose marriages are recognized by the federal government. To date, gay marriage has been recognized in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Washington, the Coquille Tribe (Oregon), the Suquamish Tribe (Washington), and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (Michigan), but lesbian and gay couples legally married in these states and jurisdictions are not treated equally under federal law.

In 2009, the Tax Policy Center and the Williams Institute held a panel discussion called “The Higher Cost of Being Gay: Life, Death, and Taxes.” As Howard Gleckman wrote,

when it comes to federal taxes the question is not whether you are gay or straight, but whether or not you are married. Depending on the relative income of each spouse, married couples either enjoy a marriage bonus or suffer a marriage penalty. Of course, heterosexuals can choose to marry or not and live with the tax consequences. Gays and lesbians have no such option. Even though a handful of states now recognize gay marriage, for federal tax purposes their marital status is irrelevant.

In short, it costs to be born and married gay. And it’s not just the tax code. Gay couples are denied Social Security, inheritance (i.e., estate tax and retirement savings), and health care benefits taken for granted by their straight counterparts. A few years back, the New York Times estimated the lifetime penalty for a gay couple. In the best case scenario, it would be about $30,000. In the worst case, it comes out to well over $200,000.

Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Civil rights laws and regulations
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center