What Does The Supreme Court’s DOMA Ruling Mean for Washington Couples?

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court made history with its ruling in United States v. Windsor.  The Court struck down a provision of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) which prohibited the federal government from recognizing marriages of same-sex couples.

The Court’s ruling means that married same-sex couples in Washington are now eligible for over 1,000 federal rights and responsibilities that depend on marital status.  These include:

  • The right to file joint federal tax returns as a married couple.
  • The ability to receive Social Security survivor benefits if a spouse dies.
  • The same rights as different-sex couples to sponsor an immigrant spouse for legal permanent residence or U.S. citizenship.

But while the Windsor decision is a tremendous victory for equality, it is also important to be aware of the limits of the Court’s ruling.

First, the decision does not mean that same-sex couples may now marry in every state in the country – nor does it mean that every state will recognize marriages of same-sex couples who marry in Washington.

Currently, 13 states allow same-sex couples to marry.   This number will undoubtedly grow in the coming years.  But for now, the fact that most states continue to prohibit marriages of same-sex couples means that LGBT couples who marry in Washington are still advised to take steps to protect their rights if they travel or move to a “non-recognition” state.

These steps include:

  • Completing a second-parent adoption if a couple has children.  Washington law provides that when a couple who is married or in a registered domestic partnership has a child, both spouses or partners are legally presumed to be the child’s parents.  However, it is possible that this legal presumption will not be recognized in states that do not allow same-sex couples to marry.  As a result, it is still a good idea for LGBT couples to complete a second-parent adoption in which the non-biological parent legally adopts the couple’s child.  That’s because an adoption judgment must be recognized in every state in the country.


  • Completing wills, powers of attorney, and health care directives to provide some legal protection while in non-recognition states.

It is also important to know that some federal programs and agencies may not recognize a same-sex couple’s marriage if the couple moves to or resides in a non-recognition state.  That’s because some federal programs and statutes determine whether a couple is legally married by looking to the law of the state where the couple resides, rather than to the law of the state where they married.

Need more information?  A group of national LGBT organizations have issued fact sheets that explain the impact of the DOMA ruling with respect to various federal programs and laws, ranging from immigration, bankruptcy, employee benefits, taxes, Social Security, public benefits, and military/veterans benefits.

And here in Seattle, several legal and LGBT organizations are cosponsoring a free community event called “Marriage Equality After DOMA” on Monday, August 12 at Seattle University’s Pigott Auditorium from 6- 8 pm.  Please attend if you’d like to learn more about what the DOMA ruling means – and to get information about the next steps to make the freedom to marry a reality in all 50 states!

David Ward is an attorney at Legal Voice.  He is also the president of the QLaw Foundation, which runs the GLBT Legal Clinic.


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