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IRS has a big gay-marriage tax problem

During the runup to the Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, one number kept recurring: The government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages meant gay couples were denied more than 1,000 federal benefits that straight couples enjoy. Now that the justices have struck down DOMA, gays can look forward to equality under U.S. tax laws. That is, just as soon as the Internal Revenue Service can figure out how to make equality happen. The tax agency has promised to “move swiftly” to recognize gay unions, but for many couples it won’t be as simple as checking the “married” box on their 1040.

Those living in Washington, D.C., or the 13 states that allow same-sex marriages can file a federal tax return next April just like other married couples. Not so for the thousands of gay couples who took their vows in one of those states but who live in one of the 37 others where same-sex marriage isn’t recognized. It’s not yet clear whose definition of marriage the IRS is supposed to follow in evaluating their taxes—the state where the couple got married, or the one in which they reside. And will the federal government recognize gay couples in civil unions who file a joint return?

To avoid confusion, a single nationwide rule makes the most sense, says Patricia Cain, a tax law professor at Santa Clara University in California. “The IRS has the power to construe the Internal Revenue Code,” she says. “So for them it’s, ‘What does the word spouse mean?’ ” President Obama has weighed in, saying it’s his “personal belief” that same-sex couples should get the same federal benefits as married couples regardless of where they live. He’s asked federal agencies to research legal issues that might stand in the way. Such a ruling, though, could cause headaches for the IRS, which until now has typically followed states’ definitions of marriage, says David Herzig, a tax law professor at Valparaiso University. “You may solve this problem,” he says, “but you may open up another.”