DOMA: The Supreme Court Gets it Right, After Getting it So Wrong

A Breakdown of the Benefits for Same-Sex Couples

In a total about-face just one day after the United States Supreme Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the country’s highest court struck down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act. In an opinion that condemned the social consequences of ostracizing same-sex couples, Justice Kennedy, who wrote for the majority, declared that DOMA “undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition.”

With that denial of federal recognition comes denial of benefits, Kennedy added, saying that “Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burden, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways. By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound.” The federal government’s refusal to recognize a legal same-sex marriage has imposed a “stigma,” enshrined a “separate status” into law and “humiliates” a group of people — and that is unconstitutional, concluded Kennedy.

President Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996, following its movement through both houses of Congress, effectively barring same-sex married couples from being recognized as ‘spouses’ for purposes of federal laws, or receiving federal marriage benefits. Non-recognition of same-sex couples for all federal purposes meant exclusion from insurance benefits for government employees, social security survivor benefits, immigration, bankruptcy, federal ethics laws, among many others. By striking down DOMA, SCOTUS has opened the door for legally same-sex couples to have access to the more than 1100 federal rights and protections that automatically go into effect when a couple marries.

The ruling striking down DOMA will not be effective until 25 days from the decision. Even then, federal agencies may need time to change forms, implement procedures, train personnel, and efficiently incorporate same-sex couples into the spousal-based system. In the meantime, here are some key benefits and protections that will now be available for legally married same-sex couples thanks to the SCOTUS ruling.

Medicaid/Healthcare. Every state that recognizes marriages between same-sex couples will recognize their marriages for all Medicaid purposes. For people receiving long term care coverage through Medicaid (such as coverage for nursing home care), Medicaid provides protections for the healthy spouse’s assets. It will also affect eligibility issues. From the Hill:

Earlier in the DOMA litigation, some states complained that the marriage law was costing them money on Medicaid. The federal government was counting each person in same-sex couples separately, and sometimes they were both individually eligible for Medicaid. But if they had been counted together — as they will be now — their income would have been too high to qualify for Medicaid benefits.


The same basic math applies to ObamaCare’s tax credits to help buy private insurance. The size of the tax credit is based on household income, and it cuts off at a certain level. So some same-sex couples might receive smaller tax credits — or no credit at all — now that they’ll be treated as a couple, rather than two individual earners.


When the Defense of Marriage Act was the law of the land, a same-sex couple had to pay more for workplace health coverage even if they were legally married – because the partner’s health benefits were treated as taxable income. They couldn’t get the same deal as a heterosexual married couple, who can both get coverage through an employer without paying taxes on it. They will now be able to get employer-sponsored health coverage through their spouses without it being considered taxable income. Other health insurance related benefits that will now be available to legally married same-sex couples:


  • Spouse and children will have the right to remain in health plans if the other spouses loses their job or their hours are reduced, or if they divorce or separate. This is known as “COBRA coverage” or “COBRA continuation coverage.”
  • While most health plans only let someone enroll at specific times, marriage or divorce are “qualifying events” that will allow beneficiaries to enroll or un-enroll outside those specific time periods.

Immigration. LGBT families will now be treated the same under immigration law as different-sex immigrant families. Green card applications will no longer be denied solely because a couple is lesbian or gay. Options for families will vary from case to case, based upon a number of factors, including: whether the partners are living together or in different countries; whether the partners are living together in the United States or abroad; whether the partners have married; whether the partners can marry; and for families together in the United States, whether the non-U.S. citizen partner arrived here after having been inspected by an immigration officer or whether the partner entered without inspection. Same-sex couples will also have to meet the general criteria for marriage-based immigration. For more information:


To read more about how this decision may impact immigration reform:

The New Yorker: What the Doma Decision Means for Immigration Reform

The Daily Beast: How the DOMA ruling helps immigration reform

Mother Jones: What the Gay-Marriage Ruling Means for Immigration Reform

Social Security Spousal and Family Protections. With DOMA struck down, legally married same-sex couples will now have access to benefits when a spouse retires, in the event of a disability, or when a spouse has passed away. This will also open the door for children of same sex couples when one or both parents are disabled, retired or deceased.


For more information on the wide-spread impact of DOMA, visit Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders website: