While gay rights activists in Delaware and around the country celebrate the June 26 Supreme Court decision regarding the constitutionality of gay marriage, estate planning attorneys may have more practical reasons to applaud the historic ruling. Prior to the Supreme Court decision, the laws regarding same-sex couples were often contentious and differed from state to state. The court's decision levels the playing field, and gay couples can now enjoy the same inheritance, spousal support, and custody and guardianship rights as heterosexual couples.
The lead plaintiff in the case heard by the Supreme Court was seeking recognition as a surviving spouse. He had married his partner legally in Maryland, but his home state of Ohio refused to list him on the death certificate after his partner died of ALS. The court's decision gives gay surviving spouses estate plan benefits such as gift and estate tax exemptions and deductions.
The Supreme Court decision is also very significant for same-sex couples with children. Prior to the landmark ruling, a surviving spouse in such a relationship would only have legal parental rights to their biological children. Now either member of a gay couple can enjoy parental rights whether or not the children are biologically theirs. The ruling also assures same-sex spouses that the provisions of documents such as living wills or health care directives will be recognized nationwide.
The estate planning benefits of marriage are numerous and considerable, but putting them to beneficial use requires a sound strategy. Lawyers with estate planning experience could explain the benefits provided to a surviving spouse under a qualified terminable interest property trust, and they may also point out that federal estate tax law allows for an unlimited marital deduction.