Personal Finance

Gay married couples, still single in eyes of Florida law, sort through DOMA decision

The recent Supreme Court decision tossing part of DOMA, the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, gave gay and lesbian married couples in 13 states and the District of Columbia complete legal and financial equality with their straight counterparts.

The June 26 ruling also “put gay couples on notice in Florida” that their relationships still aren’t equal to opposite-sex married couples, according to Gene Sulzberger, a Miami attorney and certified financial planner.

“Everybody’s on alert and wondering what the future holds, identifying what kind of planning they need to do — especially if they are from a state where they were able to get married and are now living here,” said Sulzberger, a senior vice president of PRS Investment Advisory in Miami.

Fort Lauderdale real estate broker Keith Blackburn, who wed partner Deven in Washington D.C. on Sept. 17, 2011, describes his marriage experience with government as “frustrating and in several ways degrading.”

“When I filed my income tax forms last year, my status is single. I never really thought about it until I had to sign it,” said Blackburn, also president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. “My marriage didn’t mean anything.”

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Wednesday night, the gay chamber will host a free workshop, “After DOMA: Federal Rights and Benefits,” in Wilton Manors. “There’s so much misinformation out there and so many people don’t realize what DOMA being overturned means,” Blackburn said.

In 2008, Florida voters amended the state constitution to ban civil unions and define marriage as between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court did not decide the constitutionality of DOMA’s Section 2, which allows states including Florida to not recognize legal same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

“It’s just like we’re unmarried straight people. We’re exactly the same,” Miami real-estate attorney Steven Baird said. “You’re going to be married in New York, you’re still treated as single people here.”

In Florida, a straight married couple is “treated as one person not two when they own real estate together,” Baird said.

An example of the disparity: If a Florida man owns a home for 20 years, he is allowed to marry a woman and add her to the title and continue paying all property taxes based upon the home’s assessed value from decades before.

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But if the homeowner is a gay man who adds a husband to the title, the state will tax the second man’s 50 percent ownership based on current market value, not what his husband paid for the house 20 years before.

Same-sex married couples in Florida are in legal “limbo,” Sulzberger said. “There are so many things popping up, it’s got attorneys’ heads spinning. It’s kind of split the country.”

More than 1,100 federal laws, benefits and protections are tied to marital status, according to Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights group.

So far, the U.S. government has said it would issue immigration green cards to foreigners married to Americans regardless of where they reside. For couples living in states where gay marriage is legal, the IRS and other federal government agencies will recognize legal unions under all circumstances, including Social Security benefits, pensions and tax payments and penalties.

Still unclear is whether the IRS will recognize marriages of couples living in places like Florida. Will federal tax rules be based on state of marriage celebration or domicile? For instance, will a New York widower collecting his late husband’s Social Security payment still be eligible if he retires to Florida?

“This needs to be ironed out,” said David Treece, a Miami financial planner. “There may be laws, there may be an act of Congress that has to happen, so that everything is standardized for people who live in states that don’t have same-sex marriage.”

Lives have been financially wrecked by antigay laws, said Treece, president of Treece Financial Group.

“I knew a gay couple, they were together 48 years,” Treece said. “One of them had a larger Social Security check and he passed away first. The other one, he worked as an interior designer and he never really made much money, and he had a minimal check. When his partner of 48 years passed away, it meant bankruptcy. There was no way he could continue to pay debts they had and he did not inherit that larger check. It would have made a huge difference.”

Joanna Mora, an Accredited Domestic Partnership Advisor with Wells Fargo Advisors in Coral Gables, said that until the federal issues are worked out — and as long as Florida is permitted to not recognize same-sex marriages — gay and lesbian couples must continue to protect themselves the old way, with contracts and other legal agreements.

“Transfer of wealth, federal taxes, retirement planning, medical and end of life. All those issues apply whether there is DOMA or DOMA is repealed,” Mora said.

In a traditional marriage, if a husband dies, his “wife gets everything,” she said. “When you have a same-sex couple that’s not quote-unquote legally married, they have to a legal agreement, a will or a trust. Whatever their attorney decides.”

Even simple legal procedures can be complicated for married gay couples in Florida.

After he married Blackburn, Deven Chism decided to take his husband’s surname.

“In Florida, if you say you’re changing your name because of same-sex marriage, they won’t let it go through,” said Deven, a project manager at the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association in Wilton Manors. “If we had been a heterosexual couple, on the day we were married I could have submitted a piece of paper for the name change.”

Instead, it took almost a year to make the change. He had to submit a criminal background check and be fingerprinted. Total cost for the name change: about $1,000.

Sometimes the Blackburns wonder whether its worth staying in Florida.

“We’re really ingrained in the community. We have our businesses here, friends,” Deven said. “I would rather stay and fight at this moment until there is a final, definitive ‘No, this won’t happen.’ That’s when I give up.”

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