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Estate Planning for Same-Sex Couples

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Geoff Hoatson

Attorney / Principal

On June 26, 2015 the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, the name assigned to a series of consolidated cases on same-sex marriage rights. The Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the petitioners, holding that same-sex married couples are entitled to equal protection under the laws, and that their marriages must be recognized nationwide.

Case background

Jim Obergefell & his longtime partner, John Arthur, sought to enter into a legal marriage. They were residents of Ohio and Mr. Arthur was terminally ill with ALS. They wanted to solemnize their relationship before Mr. Arthur’s death. They chartered a plane to Maryland, where same-sex marriage is legal, and they were married on the tarmac at a Baltimore airport. They then returned to Ohio as a married couple.

Soon after, Mr. Arthur died. The State of Ohio issued a death certificate that did not identify Obergefell as surviving spouse. Mr. Obergefell sued the state (naming Hodges, director of the Ohio Department of Health) to have himself named as Mr. Arthur’s surviving spouse, arguing that Ohio’s state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage – including nonrecognition of marriages solemnized in other states – violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment[1]. Obergefell’s case was consolidated with a series of other related same-sex marriage cases to resolve two specific issues under the 14th Amendment.

Issues resolved by Obergefell Opinion

Impact of Obergefell for same-sex married couples

State laws banning same-sex marriage are effectively invalidated. Same-sex spouses will now enjoy all state tax benefits and other spousal benefits that other couples enjoy. (Including marriage, divorce, adoption & child custody, separation agreements & QDROs, marital property, survivorship spousal death benefits, inheritance through intestacy, priority rights in guardianship proceedings, contract rights, etc., as referenced above.)

After Obergefell, same-sex couples are afforded the same spousal rights that other couples enjoy. Some of these occur independent of proactive planning, like:

Couples absolutely should still proactively plan. Just because states recognize marriage doesn’t mean couples should not take control of their will and trust planning, and clearly set forth their wishes in enforceable legal documents. All the good reasons to plan apply just as much to same-sex married couples as well as opposite-sex couples:

Obergefell likely represents the last word on same-sex marriage, elevating these relationships to equal stature with other marriages. While same-sex married couples are now entitled to equal protection under the laws of every state, the efficacy of those laws in ensuring dignity in disability and death, and orderly and structured distribution of property after death is very limited for all couples. Families should always take control of their planning and leave as little to state law interpretation as possible. That is best done through careful planning with experienced professionals who can intelligently guide the family through the process.

[1] The 14th Amendment applies the 5th Amendment equal protection clause to the states. (Note: Same-sex couples already receive equal treatment under federal law after U.S. v. Windsor. For all federal tax purposes and other benefits under federal law (ERISA, etc.), same-sex couples are treated the same as any other married couple.)

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