HOUSTON -- Vacationing in Vancouver, Canada, a few years ago, Enita Torres and Barbara Ervin kept hearing the same question from their friends: Are you going to get married?
They had lived together for decades in a little house in the Houston Heights. They had never given much thought to marriage, mainly because they are gay and Texas does not allow same-sex marriages. However, as long as they were vacationing in Canada, they decided to give it a try.
“I felt it was more of a political statement, because obviously it wasn’t going to get us anywhere here,” Ervin recalls.
So they spent five days as a married couple. It was fun, they remember, calling Torres’ children and telling them their mother had remarried. Torres was a little surprised how much the wedding affected her. Then they returned home to Texas, a state where their marriage license had only sentimental value.
“I always felt like this is who I wanted to spend my life with whether anybody else recognized it,” Ervin said.
Now, it turns out their holiday whim could have a significant impact on their financial future.
Ebullient gay rights supporters celebrated Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling rejecting a key part of federal anti-gay marriage legislation. It also did not take gay couples long to start asking questions about the decision’s financial impact.
The decision opened the door to a laundry list of federal benefits long taken for granted by men and women married to each other, but long denied to gay couples.
Almost immediately gay couples in Texas wondered whether they should travel to other states to get married, if only for the financial impact.
“It does seem like there will be some federal benefits that we will have if we are legally married somewhere,” Torres said.
For example, although Texas does not recognize same-sex marriages, legal scholars say gay Texans who marry in other states will still be eligible to file joint federal income tax returns.
Torres and Ervin estimate the difference adds up to thousands of tax dollars every year.
The ruling could also dramatically impact gays who have been forced pay estate taxes after their spouses died. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s ruling arose from the case of an 84-year-old woman who paid $363,000 in inheritance taxes after the death of her longtime partner. She would have paid nothing if she had been married to a man, but as a result of this week’s court ruling, she is now entitled to a refund.
Gay spouses of federal workers could also access benefits traditionally offered to employees’ families, like health insurance and pension payments. Some tax experts believe the ruling will also impact what gays can do with retirement accounts left behind by dead spouses.
Small wonder tax advisors are fielding phone calls from gay clients asking about the ruling’s financial impact.
“They’re calling,” said Kathy Hubbard, a tax practitioner who also happens to be the domestic partner of Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “They want to know, ‘What does it mean? Should we amend our return? Or should we go get married? You know, should we go to Canada? Should we go to Massachusetts or D.C. and get married and come back?”
The answer varies, she says, depending on each taxpayer’s situation. For example, many same-sex couples will face the so-called “marriage penalty” that’s plagued husbands and wives for decades.
Hubbard and Parker have openly discussed getting married, but they would prefer wedding in Texas. So, for that matter, would Torres and Ervin.
“We’ve been together 26 years,” Ervin said. “And it feels like maybe sometime we’re going to be able to get married here.”
In the meantime, they are still legally married in Canada. Now their holiday lark may become an unexpected financial boon.