The IRS Recognizes Gay Marriage. Why Won’t Governor Corbett?

Pennsylvania can and must do better. Besides, there's money to be made.

Here’s a phrase you don’t hear every day: Thank you, IRS!

In a landmark ruling last week, the Internal Revenue Service and Treasury Department declared that all legally married gay couples could file joint federal tax returns, even if they resided in states—like Pennsylvania—that did not recognize same-sex unions.

While a huge step forward in the ongoing struggle for gay equality, the IRS decision underscores, once again, the provincial tone deafness of our own statehouse to the defining issue of a generation.

In the face of a growing tide of cultural inevitability—the end of the Defense of Marriage Act and the legalization of same-sex unions in 13 states and 15-plus countries—Pennsylvania remains intransigent about the right to marry.

Come tax time, however, the feds will trump Pennsylvania, along with other prehistoric swamps like Mississippi and Alabama, by allowing same-sex marrieds to enjoy federal tax benefits previously restricted to heterosexuals. Chief among them, significantly lower estate taxes.

This can be serious money. New Yorker Edie Windsor was hit with $363,000 in federal estate taxes in 2009 after the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer. (The couple were lawfully wed in Toronto in 2007.) United States v. Windsor led to the Supreme Court’s historic ruling in June striking down DOMA.

Naturally, same-sex couples who plan to file joint federal returns will have to show proof that they are legally married. For many gay Pennsylvanians, shut out at home, that could mean a festive excursion to Delaware or New York or Washington, D.C.

Cha-ching. Hear those dollars flying away, Governor Corbett?

The emotional impact of the IRS’s validation of gay marriage cannot be overstated. Previously, the agency had recognized virtually every conceivable familial relationship except domestic partners, from half-brothers to fathers-in-law to great-grandparents.

Married gays finally have a seat at the IRS table. And as somebody once said, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.

Filing a joint federal return is no panacea, of course. Gay couples with similar incomes may be subject to the ‘marriage penalty,’ which results in a much higher tax bill than if they had filed separately as individuals.

It also means more paperwork headaches. Since state taxes are not affected by the IRS ruling, and since Pennsylvania doesn’t like homosexuals, even if they pay their taxes, some experts say married gays may have to file returns under two different statuses—jointly for federal and individually for state. Better bone up on your math, boys and girls.

Sooner or later, and I pray it’s the former, public opinion will force Pennsylvania to legalize same-sex marriage. Seriously, how long can the so-called Cradle of Liberty allow itself to trail behind the likes of Argentina (Argentina!) and Iceland (Iceland!)—not to mention the IRS—on this civil-rights issue? It’s beyond embarrassing.

My bar is set higher for Pennsylvania. I’d like to believe that Ben Franklin’s was, too, and that he would have supported gay marriage. When it came to the institution itself, this philandering Founding Father wasn’t exactly a stickler for details.

Franklin sired an illegitimate son. His second marriage, to Deborah Read Rogers, lasted 44 years, but the couple was not legally married. Her previous marriage had never been annulled, so technically, they were common-law spouses.

Back to the present, I’m proud of the IRS for its gutsy move. BTW, are wedding expenses deductible?

On Tue., Sept. 17, as part of the Constitution Center’s Constitution Day 2013, Philadelphia magazine editor Tom McGrath will be moderating “DOMA and PA: Legal Showdown,” a conversation on the future of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania. Panelists will represent both sides of the debate and will include State Rep Brian Sims and attorney Mark Aronchick, co-lead counsel in the federal lawsuit to invalidate Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage act. The discussion is free, but reservations are recommended.