By Attorney Howard Iken: This week the US Supreme Court will decide a case that will most likely change the entire definition of “marriage” thought the entire country. The court will be deciding on a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act. President Clinton signed The Defense of Marriage Act into law in 1996. The law lays out a definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. This definition has become important when dealing with various federal government agencies, and also in the relationship between states with different laws. The Defense of Marriage Act governs the interaction between states that have recognized gay marriages and/or civil unions. Because of the law, many states have refused to recognize valid marriages legally entered into in other states. This was huge for gay and lesbian couples because even when they are legally married they still might be prevented from getting social security survivor’s benefits, filing joint tax returns, or enjoying other benefits routinely available to traditional married couples.
The case is known as United States v. Windsor. Edith Windsor, who lives in New York, had to pay a huge amount of taxes on her married partner’s estate because she was unable to take advantage of an existing exemption given to heterosexual couples. She faced those higher taxes despite the fact that she was legally married to her partner – according to the State of New York. Ms. Windsor sued and the case eventually worked its way up to the US Supreme Court.
There is a trend across the entire country allowing and recognizing civil unions, and gay and lesbian marriages. And the trend has appeared to accelerate. It has not specifically hit Florida yet. But even Florida has recently moved toward a more liberal point of view on non-traditional couples. One example in the last couple of years was a key court decision in south Florida that ruled the statute prohibiting gay and lesbian adoptions was invalid. Florida Department of Children and Families followed that court decision by announcing future non-enforcement of that statute.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides on this case will become the law of the land. It will have far reaching effects on state law and acceptance of gay and lesbian marriage. It will also have far reaching effects on the welfare of children and their ability to find stability and permanence in their family units.
Howard Iken is a divorce, custody, marital law, and bankruptcy attorney with a practice in Pasco, Pinellas, and Hillsborough County.