Same-sex couples face the music: First comes love, then taxes

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Getting married is both an emotional decision and an economic one, something that same-sex couples in the states that have allowed them to legally wed have been finding out since 2004.

Estate planning, taxes, Social Security benefits, health insurance and other financial issues have historically been enormously complicated for same-sex couples. For the last 10 years, things did not get that much clearer, especially for couples caught between federal and state rules.

Now with nationwide acceptance of marriage equality, thanks to the Supreme Court decision on Friday, will the financial picture finally be clear? Reuters spoke with three experts in LGBT financial planning to find out the implications of the Supreme Court decision.

Q: Is financial planning now exactly the same for same-sex couples as heterosexual couples?

A: Not quite. “I wish I could say marriage makes it easy, but it doesn’t,” says Jennifer Hatch, president and managing partner of Christopher Street Financial, based in New York.

There are still lingering issues, particularly when there are children involved, such as second-parent adoption still not being legal in all states, though new challenges to those laws are likely.

Some couples may also have to untangle decades of convoluted planning that they had to employ.

And some may want to pick and chose which aspects of their financial lives they want to combine. “That’s where we get involved in designing pre-nups and post-nups,” Hatch says.

Q: Taxes are a big drawback to marriage. Should same-sex couples consider staying single in certain circumstances?

A: Some couples are asking financial questions first, rather than just jumping into marriage, especially if they have been together for years as an unmarried couple.

"For same-sex marriage, it's a win-win across every part of financial strategy except taxes," says financial planner Joshua Hatfield Charles, an ambassador for the CFP Board of Standards, an industry group. 

The so-called marriage penalty, which is the point at which married couples pay more in taxes than single filers, kicks in for a couple when they earn about $80,000 each, says Hatch.

Two high-earning spouses (or just one high earner) need to consider the implications of being in a higher tax bracket, which can also involve being subject to the alternative minimum tax.

"Do they want to be married and file separately or jointly? It won't be what they were doing in the past. It's super different," says Betsy Billard, a private wealth adviser at Ameriprise Financial, who is based in New York and Los Angeles. 

Billard says heterosexual couples could ask the same questions, but she has never had clients who actually did so.

Q: Do the tax implications outweigh the benefits of estate planning?

A: It depends on your situation, but probably not. Married couples have an unlimited marital exclusion to estate taxes, which means they are able to pass assets directly to a spouse upon death. Financial planners say this is a huge advance for same-sex couples - saving money, time and emotional distress.

Also, pensions can pass directly to a spouse, which Charles has found to be a great relief to clients with defined benefit pensions, such as federal and state government workers.

And there are numerous Social Security benefits, such as being able to claim death benefits on a spouse’s record. “Social Security is something that heterosexual people take for granted,” says Billard, but the benefits are cherished for same-sex couples.

Additionally, marriage provides the opportunity to create spousal individual retirement accounts, which is a great protection to spouses who do not work, Charles says.

Q: How does the ruling affect the children of same-sex couples?

A: In states that did not recognize same-sex marriage previously, Charles ran into problems with clients where one parent stayed at home to raise the children and did not work. “Any support over $14,000 was not a gift, and was taxable,” he says.

Billard has had clients who have had to go to court after 20 years of raising children to have their status upheld. She says Friday’s decision will have a huge impact.

“What this does for the children is it solidified what a family is. Pure and simple,” she says.

Editing by Leslie Adler