When James Obergefell and John Arthur decided to get married, there was a palpable sense of urgency. John was suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, and his prognosis wasn’t good. If they were going to exchange wedding bands before John died, they needed to act fast.
The year was 2013, and the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled in United States v. Windsor that the federal government had to recognize same-sex marriages approved by the states. But their home state of Ohio had banned gay marriage almost a decade earlier. Despite the seriousness of John’s illness, they would have to travel to one of the few states where same-sex marriage was legal in order to get married.
They chose Maryland.
In a medical-transport jet paid for by the couple’s friends, James and John landed on the tarmac at BWI Airport and exchanged vows. When John died a few months later, Ohio refused to name James as the surviving spouse on John’s death certificate.
James sued to require the state to recognize their union and won, but he also accomplished much more than that. The name Obergefell is now synonymous with the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage all across America, Obergefell v. Hodges.
Gay marriage has been legal in Maryland since January 1, 2013. When the Supreme Court ruled in Windsor later that year, Maryland’s same-sex spouses gained full recognition of their unions at the state and federal level. So what does Obergefell mean for Maryland’s LGBT community?
1. Unrestricted Travel. Married gay and lesbian couples will have their unions recognized in all 50 states. As a result, they can travel with a greater sense of freedom and can relocate to another state knowing that their unions will remain valid.
Whether two people are married or not, they should travel with Advance Directives that name each other as their health care agents. These documents can be vital if either partner needs medical care while away from home.
2. Tax Implications. Regardless of the state they live in, married couples must indicate their marital status on their federal tax returns. Many couples will see their taxes decrease, but some high-earning couples with similar incomes may pay more under the “marriage penalty.”
Married gay and lesbian couples can name each other as the primary beneficiaries of their 401(k)s and IRAs. Upon the death of the account owner, the surviving spouse will receive preferential tax treatment for the account assets.
3. Federal Benefits. Marriage confers a long list of government benefits, which are now available to same-sex spouses regardless of where they live. These include the right to take unpaid leave if the other spouse or a family member is sick, to receive coverage under a spouse’s health insurance, and to enjoy Medicare benefits. Married couples are also entitled to Social Security payments when one spouse retires, becomes disabled, or dies.
4. Estate-Planning Advantages. Same-sex spouses should be sure to update their Wills, Powers of Attorney, and Advance Directives to reflect their new marital status. Couples can also title their real estate “as tenants by the entirety,” even for property outside of Maryland. This form of ownership is reserved to married couples and helps protect the property from certain types of creditors.
In Maryland, married couples avoid the state’s 10 percent inheritance tax, which applies to any bequest left to someone who isn’t a spouse or close family member. A bequest to a surviving spouse anywhere in the country now also avoids the federal estate tax.
Maryland was among the first states to secure the benefits of marriage for its gay and lesbian citizens. Thanks to James Obergefell, we can now enjoy these benefits anywhere in America.