DOMA Challenged by 83-Year-Old Widow

Edith Windsor was with her partner for more than 40 years - and now she could change the way same-sex couples are treated by the federal government

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer (all photos courtesy of ACLU)

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer were together for more than 40 years until Spyer died in 2009. Windsor, now 83, says she was forced for pay $363,000 in estate taxes because the federal government would not recognize their same-sex marriage in New York. Today, the widow is speaking out against DOMA. She filed a petition this week asking the Supreme Court to hear her challenge – one that could change the way married same-sex couples are treated in this country.

Windsor, who worked as an IBM programmer for most of her life, married Spyer in Canada and cared for her after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the late 1970s. They lived for more than four decades in New York’s Greenwich Village. When Spyer died in 2009, she left all of her property to Windsor. Because they were married in 2007, Spyer’s estate normally would have passed to Windsor as her spouse without any estate tax at all. “Had Ms. Windsor been married to a man, rather than a woman, she would not have had to pay any federal estate tax at all,” says Windsor’s lawyers in a statement.

But that didn’t happen – because they were a same-sex couple.

Payment of the federal estate tax by a surviving spouse is one of the most significant adverse impacts of DOMA. For many, it can be a mater of losing everything – from the home they build together to custody of children.

“The impact of DOMA is felt most dramatically today here in New York,” says NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “At least 10,000 same-sex couples have been married in New York since our marriage law went into effect. But DOMA subjects gay and lesbian married New Yorkers to a form of second-class citizenship. All married couples should have their marriages respected by the federal government, once and for all.”

In June, a federal district judge in New York ruled in Windsor’s favor that section three of DOMA unconstitutionally discriminates against married same-sex couples, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is also representing the 83-year-old. The Justice Department and the leadership of the House of Representatives recently asked the Supreme Court to hear DOMA challenges in two other cases, including a case, like Windsor’s, that is still pending in a federal appeals court.

“With Edie’s case and the two others, the high court has before it striking illustrations of the many different harms that DOMA inflicts on many thousands of married same-sex couples all across the country,” says James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Project. “Edie and Thea got married after making a life-long commitment to each other, and it’s just wrong for the government to pretend that they were legal strangers.”

The attorneys are asking that the taxes be refunding to the ailing widow. “Edie Windsor, who recently celebrated her 83rd birthday, suffers from a serious heart condition,” explains Roberta Kaplan, one of Windsor’s attorneys. “Because the District Court’s ruling in her favor is entitled to an automatic stay of enforcement, Edie cannot yet receive a refund of the unconstitutional estate tax that she was forced to pay simply for being gay. The constitutional injury inflicted on Edie should be remedied within her lifetime.”

A movie’s even been created about the couple – Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement:

Click here to read more about this historic case.