DOMA

Like nearly everyone in the gay community, I’m ecstatic about the Supreme Court’s ruling to strike down a key part of the (oh so condescendingly named) Defense of Marriage Act.  There is so much to be happy about.  Binational same-sex couples (where one is a U.S. citizen and the other is not) like these can now live together in the U.S.  Gay widows like this one don’t face financial ruin because they can’t collect partner’s Social Security benefits or inherit property free of taxes.  (Side note, I found that story by googling “gay widow loses house” – I knew there would be one.)  An important legal precedent has been set which will make it that much harder for states like mine to retain their prohibitions on same-sex marriage.  And, if I’m being honest, I’ve had a good bit of schadenfreude watching marriage opponents bemoan this ruling.

But this blog isn’t about broad social commentary on same-sex marriage – there’s plenty of that elsewhere.  This blog is about one couple’s experience as a gay married couple in a state that doesn’t recognize us.  Since the ruling many of our friends have asked us what it means for us.  Well here you go.

In our house H and I have hanging up what I consider our two marriage certificates.  One is the a poster with our vows and the signatures of everyone who came to our wedding in North Carolina.  The other is our marriage license issued by the state of Vermont.  So we’re married according to most people we meet, the state of Vermont (along with twelve other states, five Native American tribes, and the District of Columbia), and now the federal government*.  But we’re not married according to the state of North Carolina.  The Supreme Court struck down the part of DOMA that allowed the federal government not to recognize our marriage, but not the part that allowed individual states to do the same.  

All this means that in our everyday lives DOMA won’t do all that much.  We will still have to fill out all of those Affidavits of Domestic Partnership and rely on our employers to make the choice to treat us as married (which, fortunately, they do).  We can now (probably) file our federal taxes as a married couple, but our state taxes still have to be filed separately.  We still worry about our relationship not being respected if one of us goes to the hospital or, god forbid, dies.  

We took a trip to Washington last month, and I was struck by how much freer I felt in a state that recognized our marriage.  It’s a little silly – and I think about it way too much – but even simple things like holding H’s hand in public felt safer because I knew that the government had my back.  When we’re in Washington or another state with marriage equality, we are officially equal to straight couples, even if some people individually don’t see us that way.  In North Carolina we are generally surrounded by people who see us as equal, but we know that the state does not.  So for now DOMA means a little more feeling of freedom, but also a reminder of what we are missing.

 

*Okay so recognition by the federal government isn’t totally clear yet.  As it is now, some federal agencies, like the IRS define marriage by where you got your license.  So to them we’re married.  Others, like the Social Security Administration, define it by where you currently live – so to them we’re not married.  This isn’t really an issue for anyone but same-sex couples because everyone else is married everywhere if they’re married anywhere.  For example, some states allow first cousins to marry while others don’t (check out my quiz to see if you can name those states that sanction cousin marriages but not gay ones).  If I married my cousin in one of those states (well, my male cousin) then moved to one that did not have the same law, the new state would still be obligated to recognize us.  Anyway, it seems like the Obama administration could direct all federal agencies to define marriage by where the license was issued, meaning that no matter where they lived any gay couple could travel to a state for the license, like H and I did, and be federally recognized.

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Taxes

Ah yes, it is tax time.  It’s a sign of my nerdiness that I really like doing my taxes, and of course it doesn’t hurt that I usually get a pretty good refund.  Once again though my joy is tinged with injustice as this is one more thing where it costs to be gay.  If you’ve followed the national debate over same-sex marriage – which you probably have if you’re reading this – then you know that same-sex couples cannot file their taxes jointly, and we’re not happy about that.  I wasn’t able to find a solid number for how much this costs the typical gay couple, but this article in the Wall Street Journal describes some of the issues.  One thing is that it is so much more complicated.  Since we have to file separately, we have to figure out how to divvy up joint assets like houses.

 

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Since we’re a young couple without kids, H and I have a fairly simple tax situation.  The house is in my name (since I bought it before we met) and other than that it is pretty standard.  This year I filed our taxes separately as usual, then with the help of TurboTax – the tax preparation software I use and highly recommend – I calculated what our taxes would have been if we’d be able to file jointly.  The good news is that we didn’t suffer a penalty.  Had we been allowed to file as a married couple, we still would have been better off to file separately.  Obviously we would have preferred that option, but its good to know that for this year at least we weren’t penalized.

I calculated H’s taxes first, because it takes a little longer for me to get all my tax documents in.  With interest on her student loans as the only major deduction, H claims the standard deduction.  She ended up with a $717 federal and $94 state refund.  We’ve already spent that 🙂  For my taxes I am able to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes, along with charitable donations, job expenses, and tuition from my last semester of grad school last spring, so I itemize.  All of this added up to a federal refund of $3064 and state refund of $468.  As I said, I like doing taxes.  Now for the good part.  I added H’s income and deductions to my tax calculations and changed my filing status to married joint, and TurboTax figured out how much we would have been refunded if we filed that way.  The result was a refund of $3275 federal and $325 joint – $743 less than filing separate.  So take that haters!

And finally, it didn’t even cost us more to prepare the taxes, since I used TurboTax’s free version to prepare and file H’s taxes.  So this time, at least, the injustice was symbolic rather than monetary.  It burns that I have to mark myself as “Single” when I’m not, but it does not end up costing me more money.

Cost:

  • Combined tax refund: $4343
  • Tax preparation fees: $39.99
  • Time: 3 hours

Cost if we were straight:

  • Tax refund married, filing joint: $3600
  • Tax refund married, filing separate: $4343
  • Tax preparation fees: $39.99
  • Time: 4-5 hours, given all the calculation

Health Insurance

With this subject, you probably know where this post is going: in short, our lives were made extra difficult and expensive because we’re a gay couple.  I’ll start with the good news.  My job extends benefits to employee’s same-sex partners, so after submitting an Affidavit of Domestic Partnership I could add H to my health plan the same as I would if she were my husband.  Not all employers do that, and before either of us applies for a job we make sure that this benefit is offered.  Now for bad news.  Although it seems like we’re being treated equally (except for the whole Affidavit thing), it actually cost about twice as much to add my wife than it would have cost to add my husband.

I’ll start from the beginning.  H and I each receive health insurance (and pay a portion of the premium) from our respective employers.  H switched jobs last fall, resulting in a one-month gap where she didn’t get health insurance from her employer.  Luckily I could add her to my insurance plan for $128.81 per month.  I filled out the form, attached proof that she was no longer covered by her old insurer, and she was added to my plan.  The HR representative warned me that because we are a same-sex couple, we would have to pay taxes on her premium.  I thought this meant that while my premium contribution is deducted before tax (and, by extension, if she were a husband instead of a wife her portion would be as well), her portion would be deducted after tax.  An annoying difference but it couldn’t add up to much, right? Wrong.  Not being a tax expert, I misunderstood the implications of adding H to my plan.  While the employee contribution to H’s premium was $128.81, the employer contribution is $325.82.  Instead of a pre-tax/post-tax issue, this was an issue of my taxable gross income.  That is, I had to pay taxes on the employer contribution.

This is where the story gets a bit nonsensical.  Somehow, I don’t really understand it, but that extra $325.82 in taxable income resulted in a $119.91 jump in the federal and state taxes that were deducted from my paycheck.  In a heated (and embarrassing – I started crying) exchange with an HR representative, I tried to get an explanation for how it was possible that my taxes could go up that much.  It wasn’t just rise in absolute value, the percentage taken out was more too.  The only explanation she came up with was that perhaps I jumped into a new tax bracket.  Anyway, I’m not sure how it works out, but the bottom line is that it cost a lot more money than I thought it was.

The story got a bit better when I talked to someone higher up in HR who acknowledged the problem.  I told her that while I appreciate the company’s attempt to treat same-sex partners the same as opposite-sex partners, from my experience by not dealing with the tax implications they were not actually doing so.  The ultimate responsibility lies in the state and federal governments that do not recognize our relationship and therefore do not afford us the same tax benefits as they do married straight couples.  But failing that, someone needs to make up the difference in taxes and in this case, as it often is, that person was the private citizen – me.

Cost:

  • Health Insurance Premium for Partner (employee contribution), 1 month: $128.81
  • Extra Taxes Deducted from My Paycheck, 1 month: $119.91
  • Total time: Does the hour or so on the phone, plus the 2 hours it took me to settle down count?

Cost if we were straight: $128.81

P.S.  To end on a happy note, today is the 4 year anniversary of when H and I first met!

Affidavit of Same-Sex Domestic Partnership

Ugh. I’m already sick of these.  Here’s the deal: H and I are basically strangers to one another under the law, even more so since Amendment 1 invalidated our domestic partnership issued by the town where we live.  There is no legal document that acknowledges our relationship (well there’s our Vermont marriage license, but it is not recognized by our local, state, or federal government).  We are both lucky to have employees who choose to extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners, but they require that we submit a legal affidavit attesting to our relationship.  Without government recognition that would cover a wider radius of institutions, the affidavit only applies to the specific employer.  

So we fill these out over and over.  It is not a huge process,  Print the pdf, fill it out, go to the UPS store together to have it notarized, pay $5 per notary signature.  We could go to our credit union and get it done for free, but the nearest branch is a half hour away in the opposite direction that we commute every day.  The rub is, at least with my employer, married couples don’t have to submit ANY proof of their relationship.  No affidavit, no marriage license, nothing.  They take them at their word.  Neither can we submit our Vermont marriage license.  We have to do the affidavit.  It’s exactly the kind of small insult that motivated this blog.

I know I should be grateful.  A lot of gay people work for companies that do not extend benefits to their partners.   State institutions are legally barred from doing so.  We are both lucky to work for employers that at least attempt to treat our relationship as a marriage.  I believe that they do their best, and there is probably a good legal reason for the affidavit.  But we still have these damn forms.

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This is a copy of the affidavit we filled out for my work.  We needed to add H to my insurance for a month between her old coverage and new coverage (more on that fiasco later).  We went to the UPS store, paid $10 (for each notary signature), then I hand delivered the file to my HR office.

Cost:

  • $10 for notary
  • 45 minutes

Cost if we were straight: $0

 

Civil Ceremony

As I mentioned in my Welcome post, we had two ceremonies: a big religious wedding with family and friends where we live in North Carolina, then a civil ceremony two days later in Vermont.  To put a positive spin on it, I like to say we got to have two weddings, a big celebration and an intimate elopement.  The downside – beyond the insult of the whole thing – is that we had to pay for a second ceremony.

Our civil ceremony was very small, just the two of us, a Justice of the Peace, a photographer, and a few sheep in the background.  We held it outside the Comstock House Bed & Breakfast, where we were staying.  Owners Warren and Ross helped us find a JoP – they recommended Olivia Gay, who had performed both their civil union and wedding (when each had become legal in VT).  Of course we couldn’t pass up the chance to have our ceremony performed by a woman named Gay!  H arranged a photographer she found on the internet, and the four of us held a short, simple ceremony on the back lawn of the Comstock House.  Afterward we toasted with Prosecco, signed the marriage license, and went out to dinner.  It was beautiful but to be honest, after the wonderful wedding we had just had at home, it was kind of a downer.

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JoP signs our VT marriage license

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Our witnesses

To tally up the cost I won’t include the trip to Vermont, since that was for our honeymoon and we could never consider a trip there to be a burden (have I mentioned how much we love Vermont?).  Instead I’ll include just those costs associated with the ceremony itself:

Cost:

  • Justice of the Peace: $100
  • Photographer: $500
  • VT Marriage License: $45 + $10 for a certified copy (that’s less than in NC, we saved $5!)

Total: $655

Time: 1/2 a day for the ceremony, 2 hours planning time.

Cost if we were a straight couple: 

$60 for the license, all other costs would have been part of our religious ceremony

Changing Our Names

My wife and I are surprisingly traditional, and it was important for us that we have the same last name as new family.  Okay, we’re not that traditional, because we took a new name entirely – her dad’s first name, who passed away a few years before we met – rather than one of us taking the other’s last name.  That meant we both went through the process of legally changing our names.

Traditionally, of course, the woman in a heterosexual couple takes her husband’s last name.  The law is set up for this scenario, so it is pretty easy – there is just an extra line on the marriage license.  Here’s what a marriage license looks like in Orange County, NC, where we live:

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If you notice, the option is only there for brides – if a man wants to change his name when he marries, he has to go through the same process we did.  

Anyway, since the marriage license option wasn’t available, we changed our names through court order – something anyone can do if they wish.  The first step was to publish a notice of our intended name change in the county courthouse.  We did this separately on the advice of a friend, because anyone can challenge your intended name change, and we didn’t want some random bigot to give us trouble.  After the notice had been posted for 10 days, we then had appointments with the county clerk to fill out the paperwork.  For this step, we each needed:

  1.  A certified copy of a birth certificate (my dad FedEx-ed mine to me)
  2. Two Affidavits of Good Character, signed by a resident of the same county and notarized. I found two friends willing to do this on a Tuesday afternoon, when the UPS store was open, and paid $10 for the notary fee.
  3. A notarized application, $5
  4. $89 in cash to process the name change.

Total Cost:  

$104 each, $208 total (actually, H’s only cost $96 because the notary felt bad and didn’t charge her to notarize her application)

About 5 hours total to drive to the courthouse twice, fill out forms, etc.

Cost if we were a straight couple:

$60 for a marriage license

 

Welcome

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I got married last year – 10/15/2011 – woohoo!  Before I was in an LTR, I thought of marriage equality as a symbolic thing.  We’re not equal until our relationships are officially recognized, right?  Beyond that, I knew that there were serious legal issues that could lead to every same-sex couples nightmare scenarios.  One of us could be hospitalized and the other barred from her room, one of us dies and the other can’t afford the extra taxes to keep our home.  Those are important but far away for a young couple.

I still believe in the symbolic importance of gay marriage, and I still worry about nightmare scenarios, but what has become more and more apparent to me is that being gay married entails a series of small injustices.  Probably once a month my wife and I discover some extra hurdle that we wouldn’t have if we were a straight, legally married couple.  Whether it’s having to go to the notary and pay $5 for an Affidavit of Same-Sex Partnership (because our VT marriage license doesn’t count), or legally changing our names at the county courthouse for $89 each (because we can’t do this through a marriage license), all too often we are reminded that society, through it’s laws, does not support us.

Don’t get me wrong, the majority of people in our everyday lives treat us wonderfully.  Our friends often forget that we’re not legally married, because they see no difference between our marriage and those of straight friends.  We’re grateful that our employers include us in benefits when legally they don’t have to.  And we’re grateful for A, the notary at the UPS store who is always kind and apologetic when yet again she has to charge us $5 for the Affidavit. But this isn’t enough; not in a country that prides itself on equality for all.

That brings me to the purpose of this blog.  From now until I run out of steam, I’m going to document all these small injustices, most of which carry a price tag.  If this angers you as much as it does me, let it be the inspiration you need to go one step further in the fight for marriage equality.  Thanks for reading