Estate Planning for LGBTQ+ Married Couples
Updated: Jul 26, 2021
On June 26, 2015, in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must allow same-sex couples to marry and must recognize same-sex marriages from other states. As a result, estate planning for LGBTQ+ married couples became equal, under the law, to planning for other married couples. As with any historic legal case, however, unique challenges have emerged in the wake of the Obergefell decision. This is especially true regarding estate planning.
Consequently, a comprehensive estate plan review is a must for LGBTQ+ couples who were married, were in a domestic partnership, or created an estate plan before June 26, 2015. Your current estate plan might no longer make sense for several reasons, including those discussed below. Together, we can discuss your situation and create or update your estate plan appropriately.
Beneficiary Designations To move forward with a fresh slate, you may want to purge anything related to a previous relationship from your estate plan. That includes removing former partners as the beneficiary of retirement accounts, investment accounts, life insurance, or annuities. If you co-owned real estate with a former partner, this situation may also need to be addressed.
Dissolved Partnerships If you were in a domestic partnership but broke up without formally dissolving it, you may still be legally married. How can this be? Some states automatically converted domestic partnerships to marriages after the Obergefell ruling. Or, perhaps a same-sex couple was married in a different state than their state of residence (such as a couple living in Texas who got married in Vermont). The couple may have broken up thinking the marriage “didn’t count” because their state of residence didn’t recognize it as a legal union. In reality, the couple in question could still be legally married. Given the complexity of this topic, we should discuss potential pitfalls such as these.
Marriage Benefits Marriage comes with several potential income and estate tax benefits that now apply to all married couples. While there are several reasons to remain unmarried, you may want to consider the marriage benefits now available to LGBTQ+ couples, including:
Income tax filing. Married filing jointly status often benefits couples with disparate salaries, and it could also bring a couple’s total tax bill down in certain other situations. For instance, if one spouse makes about $215,000 per year, and as a couple you still make about that much, married filing jointly status would bring the single marginal tax bracket down from 32 percent to a married filing jointly bracket of 24 percent. Married filing jointly can also provide additional deductions and other related tax benefits compared with those available to single filers.
Unlimited marital deduction. This is a provision in the U.S. tax law that allows a married person to transfer an unlimited amount of assets to their spouse at any time, including after death, free from tax. So, if you created a trust or other transfer plan to protect assets after the death of a partner, a better option may now be available. A revised estate plan could provide greater flexibility to a surviving spouse.
Joint tenants by the entireties. Many states offer married persons a “joint tenants by the entireties” ownership option for real estate and other accounts. This type of ownership offers extra creditor protection to the marital unit. In the event of death, it automatically ensures that a surviving spouse receives the full title of a property.
Parenting Planning If you and your spouse are planning on having children, you should be aware of how the following legalities affect LGBQT+ couples. The rules differ for parents who are married versus those who are unmarried.
Married couples. Married couples where one partner gives birth to the child should receive treatment very similar to different-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Pavan v. Smith held that Arkansas could not apply a different parentage assumption to the wife of a birth mother than the state applies to husbands of birth mothers.
If you’re planning on conceiving through assisted reproduction, such as surrogacy, however, you and your spouse will likely have to rely on your state’s adoption procedures. This process is often called a “second-parent adoption” because a co-parent is adopting their partner’s child without terminating the partner’s parental rights. In some states, the “second-parent adoption” procedure is easier for married couples because Obergefell requires that all married couples have access to a state’s stepparent adoption procedures.
Unmarried couples. Unfortunately, the rules are much tougher for unmarried couples. Some states are still passing laws that deny adoption rights to unmarried persons with no genetic connection to a child—seemingly targeting the LGBTQ+ community directly. As a result, many lawyers encourage same-sex couples to “adopt their own children,” as strange as that sounds. This way, if you and your partner break up and move, states are required to follow the court orders of other states, preserving the rights of both parents.
Other considerations. You should also understand that state parentage laws and federal and international laws don’t always move in sync. In certain cases, if the genetic parent of a couple’s child is not a U.S. citizen, that child may not be granted automatic U.S. citizenship. This is so even if the nongenetic partner is a U.S. citizen and acts as the child’s parent. This scenario is most concerning when the child is born abroad, but with appropriate planning, it’s possible to ensure that a child can remain with either parent in the future.
A step forward. In 2017, the Uniform Law Commission drafted an update to the Uniform Parentage Act that promotes the use of “voluntary acknowledgment of parentage forms.” At its core, this proposed law seeks to assign parental rights at the birth of the child to the two people who sought to create a family, whether through assisted reproductive technology or natural birth. As of this writing, however, only five states (California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) have enacted a law substantially similar to the updated Uniform Parentage Act.
Other Estate Planning A power of attorney provides very important protection for your health care and other estate planning decisions. To prevent these decisions from being challenged, it’s wise to have executed a clear statement of your wishes regarding health care treatment options, end-of-life care, and burial decisions. A legal provision known as an in terrorem clause can be helpful in preventing challenges to your will or any trusts you’ve created. As with all estate planning documents, working with a qualified attorney to craft a personalized plan is essential to ensuring your wishes are honored.
Planning to Protect Your Future Whether or not you face the unique estate planning challenges discussed above, it’s wise to review your estate plan when laws or your personal situation have changed. If you would like to schedule a review or have any questions about the information presented here, please reach out to me or my office.
This material has been provided for general informational purposes only and does not constitute either tax or legal advice. Although we go to great lengths to make sure our information is accurate and useful, we recommend you consult a tax preparer, professional tax advisor, or lawyer.