Washington’s law allowing same-sex marriage just took effect this week. And that could be not a moment too soon for same-sex couples hoping to receive marriage-related federal benefits.
The US Supreme Court has announced it will review the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage, and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA restricts the federal definition of marriage to a union between a man and a woman. DOMA’s provisions mean that same-sex couples cannot receive one another’s Social Security benefits and may not receive the other’s pension benefits when one of them dies.
University of Washington law professor Peter Nicolas said the court is unlikely to extend same-sex marriage to states where it’s not already legal, although the court's ruling could pave the way for that. Instead he expects the most immediate repercussions in states like Washington that have legalized same-sex marriage. He said if the court overturns DOMA, it could extend federal benefits to same-sex couples in those states.
So Nicolas said Washington’s timing was crucial in switching from domestic partnerships to marriage. “Because if DOMA is struck down,” he said, “then same-sex couples will be entitled to those benefits in a way that they wouldn’t have been if we were still doing domestic partnerships.”
Jane Martin said extending those benefits to same-sex spouses would give her some peace of mind. She’s 14 years older than her longtime partner, Alice Goodman. Right now, because of federal policies, Goodman cannot inherit Martin’s pension. So Martin said they’re trying to put other money aside. “We try to do whatever we can to boost her retirement income or we try to save a lot," she said. "And I’m also trying to figure out what I can do to go back to work."
Martin is looking for work at age 69. She said if money were no object, she’d rather be traveling and doing volunteer work. She said being in a same-sex relationship causes other hardships, like higher income taxes and worries about traveling outside Washington. But still, things are shifting. Martin said at her partner’s holiday office party this year, she was surprised at the warmth and acknowledgement they felt as a same-sex couple. She’s kind of in shock. Martin said, “It takes a little while to shift social gears from outcast to included, you know?”
Martin said people at the party were curious to know whether they’re getting married. They are – they’re looking at an August wedding, in their backyard, with a Klezmer band. Meanwhile, oral arguments in the Supreme Court cases are expected this spring, with a decision in June.