Gay couples in NC seek answers in Supreme Court marriage ruling

cowens@newsobserver.com jspector@newsobserver.comJuly 13, 2013 

CAITLIN OWENS — cowens@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

When Dave Parnell heard the Supreme Court had struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, he felt relieved and affirmed as a married gay man.

Then as the full ruling sank in, Parnell realized he didn’t know what impact, if any, it would have on him and his husband, Jeff Evans.

“Here we are in a state that has a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and we have a marriage certificate from another state, and DOMA says federally, it’s recognized,” Evans said. “Now what does that mean?”

Although last month’s Supreme Court decision paves the way for married gay couples to receive federal recognition and thus benefits, the provision of DOMA allowing each state to determine whether it will recognize same-sex marriages stands.

That means most of the 1,100 federal policies relating to marriage go by the policy of the state where a same-sex couple lives. Married gays in North Carolina are still trying to figure out how the ruling affects fundamental activities like planning for retirement, filing taxes and parenting.

One of the biggest questions is whether they will receive the same tax and Social Security benefits as those who live in one of the 13 states where same-sex couples can legally marry.

‘Now we don’t know’

For Evans and Parnell, even determining a single anniversary is difficult. After a civil union, a holy union and a legal marriage in Vermont, all three dates seem significant.

More important to them, retirement age is approaching, and they want to plan for it, but they don’t know what the new developments mean for them financially as a couple. Parnell is 60, and Evans is 58.

Evans finds the lack of clarity concerning after starting his own architectural landscaping business, which has not gone as well as he’d hoped it would.

“If something were to happen to Dave, what other couples may understand automatically transfers to them does not transfer to me,” Evans said. “We hope it will, but … now we don’t know.”

Whether a couple is married according to state law can make a big difference when it comes time to receive Social Security benefits, said Lorraine Johnson of Apex, who owns a financial planning and investment firm. Spouses can choose to collect their own Social Security benefits each month, or half of the other spouse’s, which can be significant when one spouse makes more money. This choice also continues as a survivor’s benefit when one spouse dies. Neither option is currently available when the state does not recognize the marriage.

Paying for parenthood

Winston-Salem resident Christine Regan, 36, got married during a family vacation to California in June 2008, right after the state began marrying same-sex couples. Regan and her wife made an appointment, paid about $100 for the certificate, and had a small ceremony in front of the statue of Harvey Milk in San Francisco City Hall.

“It didn’t change my situation,” Regan said. “I was just thinking that down the road it would benefit us somehow. It’s sitting in a frame on my desk, and I’m waiting for the day when I can bust it out in court.”

After the Supreme Court ruling, Regan said, she wasn’t expecting any benefits from North Carolina, but she didn’t understand why the federal government would not consider her California marriage license valid just because she lives in a state that does not recognize her marriage.

As with many gay couples, Regan must turn to expensive workarounds for benefits that come free to those in a “traditional” marriage. She is pregnant, but if she gives birth in North Carolina, her wife cannot put her name on the birth certificate or arrange a second-parent adoption.

Washington, D.C., though, allows second-parent adoptions providing the child was born there.

As a result, Regan plans to travel to Washington to give birth. The second-parent adoption would make both spouses the legal parents of the child, providing rights such as hospital visitation and ability to give permission to operate, should the child ever need it. This comes with a price, though: Regan said the legal expenses for the whole process can cost $1,900 to $3,000, plus the costs of multiple trips to Washington.

In North Carolina, a gay individual can currently adopt a child, but joint adoptions are unavailable to same-sex couples. Regan and her wife’s adoption of their child would be recognized in North Carolina, however, said Holning Lau, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor. Adoption requires a final court judgment, which under the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution must be recognized in any state, he said.

Next steps

In a speech June 27, President Barack Obama said he believes couples married in one state are still married regardless of location, although he said he spoke as a president and not as a lawyer. He said his administration would look into the issues left by the decision.

In most cases, marriage definitions for federal benefits are created by executive agencies, meaning litigation may not be necessary to clear up questions, said Lau, who is also president of the ACLU of North Carolina. Lau said he found Obama’s speech “heartening.”

In late June, the federal Office of Personnel Management announced that federal civilian employees nationwide would receive equal health and pension benefits to all legally married same-sex spouses – regardless of where they live.

The IRS, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration are expected to take longer to make a decision. Typically Social Security looks to the state where a person is living when he or she applies for benefits.

“President Obama has said he’ll ask federal government agencies to recognize that marriage, but it’s going to take some time for federal agencies to make those changes across the board to make that a reality,” Lau said.

Until then, gay married couples in North Carolina need to do things like taking out additional life insurance and saving more to prepare for the potential loss of one partner’s benefits.

As laws have changed over the years, Evans and Parnell have spoken with lawyers to figure out the meaning and implications of new policies. Not only is legal consultation costly, but the effort takes time and energy, and is difficult to juggle with everyday life, they said.

“We have the responsibility to understand all these moving targets that are put in front of us,” Evans said. “How do you figure it all out?”

Owens: 919-829-4567

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service