What Gay Marriage Means for Gay Parents in NYC

Our relationships are finally going to be recognized as equal by the state of New York. Now…what does that mean exactly?

When New York became the sixth state to legalize same sex marriage, most gay couples felt a wave of pride, a sense of relief, and general excitement that their unions would finally mean just as much as their straight neighbors. Not only was the legalization of gay marriage in New York a sign that our country as a whole was more willing to accept our lives and unions as legitimate, it was a symbolic step forward among the homophobic proclamations of the Religious Right, the unexpected blow to the kidneys delivered by the Prop. 8 decision, and the increasingly idiotic threats drummed up by organizations like the National Organization for Marriage. Yet, the practical benefits gained in the bill are still a bit murky for most gay couples. When asked by well-meaning straight friends, “So what actually changes? What do you get?” I found myself giving vague answers about taxes, property, and marriage certificates.

Thankfully, there have been a host of articles explaining just what – exactly – we can expect now that we can officially say “I do” in the eyes of the state. Un-thankfully, a lot of benefits are still dangling (or mangled) until a federal law is passed, making the outcome of state marriage legislation a murky stew of celebration and frustration, half-rights and fenced-in functionality.

Here’s the breakdown of what’s changed now that Hans Cuomo* laid down the law in NY:

Joint Tax Returns, Kind of. Now, couples who marry and live in New York will be able to file their state tax returns jointly. Great! You say. Complicated, your accountant might say. Not only will you still need to file separate federal tax returns, you may have to file a “dummy” federal return as a married couple so that you can use the data for your joint state return. Also, filing a state return together doesn’t necessarily mean you will be saving money. Wealthier couples may end up paying more in taxes, but families with lower incomes may owe less.

Inheritance. Couples who marry in New York will now be able to inherit their partner’s assets, even when there is not a will specified. Surviving spouses can also determine what they want to do with their spouse’s remains. Although certainly an important benefit, this is a bit depressing in subject matter, so let’s move on.

Estate Taxes, Kind of. Individuals with large estates will benefit because New York State allows spouses to transfer an unlimited amount of assets at their death. Everyone else must pay state estate taxes on estates that exceed $1 million. Let’s face it – ,most of us aren’t millionaires, so this one is more of a symbolic victory. As with taxes, same-sex married couples will continue to be subject to federal gift taxes and estate taxes.

State Employee Benefits. If you work for the state, your partner will be entitled to all of the same benefits (health insurance, pension survivor, etc.) as the straight staties.

Birth Certificate Recognition (for Lesbians). If a married lesbian couple gives birth to a child in New York, the married partner will be recognized as the child’s parent even if she did not give birth to the child and has not adopted the child. Among other benefits, this will allow the nonbiological partner to put the child on her insurance and make other health decisions for the child. However, it is still recommended that the nonbiological parent adopt the child to ensure she is recognized as the child’s parent in every other state. For gay men who are biologically connected to a child via surrogate, adoption is still required for the nonbiological parent (the surrogate will have to relinquish parental rights, for one, and New York State does not legally allow surrogacy contracts, for two).

Worker’s Comp Benefits. If a spouse dies from work-related injury, their husband or wife will be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits.

Health Insurance. Before the marriage bill passed, people who had their same sex partner on their plan under domestic partner insurance had to pay income taxes on the value of their partner’s benefits. Short personal anecdote: I did this once and ended up paying about $3,000 more than I thought over the course of a year. It’s not so awesome or worth it. End short personal anecdote. Now that marriage is legal in NY, gay married couples won’t have to pay that cost on a state level, but will still have to pay that cost on a federal level. To add to the complication, some companies may take away the domestic partner option now that marriage is legal because they believe it’s no longer necessary.

So…Should We Even Get Married?
I still say, Yes, absolutely! But here’s some things to keep in mind if you’re not chomping at the bit to plop down a hunk of your savings on a fabulous gay wedding in New York:

Most gay parents will want to complete a second-parent adoption regardless of whether they have a marriage license in NY state. Other couples may run into complications if they are trying to adopt in another state that does not allow same sex couples to adopt. In certain cases, they may be better off adopting as a single parent (for example, some foreign countries that ban same sex adotpion may subject the adoptive parent to background checks and interviews he or she would not pass if they were legally married to a same sex partner).

Lastly, marriage could come back to bite some couples if they relocate to another state and end up wanting to break up. The divorce process may be hindered by the difference in marriage laws from state to state, forcing one or both members of the couple to return to the state they got married in to get divorced.

* Coined right now, by me.

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