The Supreme Court struck down DOMA’s definition of marriage as unconstitutional today in a 5 to 4 decision written by Justice Kennedy. With all the talk of the expansion of benefits for same-sex couples, it has gone largely unnoticed that at least one privilege of same-sex spouses will be eliminated rather than expanded: the ability to hide assets from each other, from the government, and from the public.
Pension income is often one of the largest assets in a marriage and, until now, married same-sex partners could easily keep it hidden from one another. Federal law requires most married people, not just government employees, to obtain spousal consent if they wish to designate anyone other than their spouse as the recipient of the survivorship benefits of their pension. Federal law also requires spousal notification before a married pension recipient can forego survivorship rights.
Married people wishing to keep assets from their spouses have a strong incentive to hide pensions. A single life pension without survivorship benefits gives the pensioner a much higher monthly payout than a joint pension with survivorship rights.
Similarly, married military personnel cannot opt out of the Survivor Benefit Plan, which requires them to pay monthly premiums, unless the spouse has waived participation in the plan in writing.
Opting out of the military Survivor Benefit Plan means a higher monthly paycheck for service members.
DOMA defined the term “spouse” in all federal laws as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” People married to individuals of the same gender were not considered to be “spouses” under federal law, so they were not required to notify one another of their choices about pensions or military death benefits. They also had no right to review their spouse’s beneficiary designation. This means that a pension recipient in a same-sex marriage could easily hide benefits or take in substantially higher military pay, all while keeping his or her partner in the dark.
Not so now that DOMA’s definition of “spouse” has been struck down. Just like all other married couples, same-sex spouses will need to sign on the dotted line before their partners can fritter away their nest egg.
The end of DOMA also means that married gay couples will now have to disclose their spouse’s income on applications for federal benefits, such as student loans, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, and Medicare. Until today, these Federal programs did not recognize same-sex marriages, and thus did not require applicants to disclose their spouse’s income. The Supreme Court briefly addressed this issue in today’s decision, but focused solely on federal student loans. Presumably, however, the court’s reasoning will apply to all federal programs that determine eligibility based on a potential recipient’s household income.
Today’s decision also points out that DOMA exempted same-sex spouses of certain government employees from several federal ethics laws. For example, as the decision mentions, federal law mandates that executive branch officials recuse themselves from working on matters in which their spouse has a financial interest. Additionally, spouses of senators and senate employees cannot accept certain high value gifts, and spouses of high-ranking government officials must make certain financial disclosures.
Until today, all of the spouse’s financial information and ties to particular donors or industries could remain safely shielded from public view. Now, financial information about executive branch spouses that was unobtainable to any ethical investigator will be available for all to see and scrutinize.