by Stephen Ohlemacher
WASHINGTON — A necessary burden for most Americans, Tax Day is an accounting nightmare for thousands of gay and lesbian couples as they wrestle with the uneven legal status of same-sex marriage in the United States.
They live in a country that recognizes their marriages, but some reside in the 13 states that do not, an issue that will be argued before the Supreme Court later this month.
At tax time, and Wednesday is the filing deadline, it gets complicated because most state income tax returns use information from a taxpayer’s federal return.
Straight couples simply copy numbers from one form to another. But that doesn’t work for same-sex couples reporting combined incomes, deductions and exemptions on their federal tax returns. These couples must untangle their finances on their state returns, where they are still considered single.
“We’re adults, we’re contributing to the welfare of society and yet, here’s this one thing that just reaches up every year and kind of slaps us in the face,” said Brian Wilbert, an Episcopal priest from Ohio.
Wilbert married his husband, Yorki Encalada, in 2012, at a ceremony in New York state. He is filing a joint federal tax return for the second time this year. But Ohio, which doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, requires the couple to file their state tax returns as if they were single.
“It may not be the most burning thing,” Wilbert said. “But as we think about equality and marriage equality, this is an important thing because it’s part of what couples do.”
The number of states that recognize same-sex marriages has grown to 37, plus the District of Columbia capital district, since the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman. That ruling stopped short of declaring same-sex marriage legal nationwide, but a series of lower court have since struck down gay marriage bans in many states.
After the ruling, the IRS tax agency announced that it would recognize same-sex marriages for federal tax purposes, even if couples lived in states that did not.
The Supreme Court is scheduled hear arguments in another same-sex marriage case April 28. Advocates hope the court will compel the remaining states to recognize gay and lesbian marriages.
Opponents of same-sex marriage want the court to send the issue back to the states. They note that recognition of same-sex marriage has spread largely through court orders, rather than the ballot box.
“It’s not about the rights of a handful of people who want to change the institution of marriage,” said Phil Burress of Citizens for Community Values, an Ohio group. “It’s about the will of the people.”
The benefits of marriage are a mixed bag when it comes to taxes. Some couples, especially those with disparate incomes, can lower their combined tax bills by getting married. Others pay a marriage penalty.
The vast majority of married couples in the U.S. file joint federal tax returns in which they combine their incomes, exemptions, deductions and credits to calculate their tax liability. But same-sex couples are not allowed to file joint tax returns in most states that don’t recognize their marriages. Instead, they have to unravel their finances and file separate state returns.
“So you have this one return that would normally give you the numbers to do your state tax return, but instead you have to split all your incomes again and pretend like you’re not married,” said Deb L. Kinney, a partner at the law firm of Johnston, Kinney & Zulaica in San Francisco.