Prop 8 and DOMA Decisions – What They Mean to Same Sex Couples

Excitement ran rampant on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, when the United States Supreme Court announced two major decisions that affect the future of gay rights in this country: United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry. Outlined below is a brief breakdown of the cases, and answers to some common marriage questions that people might have after the release of these decisions.

DOMA and United States v. Windsor

The first decision handed down was about the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, specifically the section that denies federal benefits associated with marriage to gay couples by defining marriage as between a man and a woman only. Since the law was passed, same-sex couples who are legitimately married in states recognizing same-sex marriage have not been able to file truthful federal tax returns. Instead of filing as married, same-sex couples have had to file separately as single, because DOMA prohibited them from claiming over 1,000 benefits associated with marriage.
Thankfully, the Supreme Court declared DOMA to be unconstitutional. The majority reasoned that DOMA discriminated against legally married same-sex couples because it prevented the federal government from recognizing these marriages, despite the fact that they were state-sanctioned.
As a result of the Court’s decision, same-sex couples who are legally married can now file federal tax returns as married couples and can begin receiving the benefits associated with marriage.

Proposition 8 and Hollingsworth v. Perry

The second decision handed down by the Court involved Proposition 8, which denied same-sex couples the right to marry in California. In order to fully understand the ruling, it is necessary to cover a bit of the case’s procedural history.

The case was first filed in the U.S. District Court, where Judge Vaughn Walker issued a beautifully written opinion declaring the law’s unconstitutionality. Normally, when there is a challenge to a state law, the party who must defend the case is the state itself. However, the State of California refused to defend the law in the District Court, and when Walker issued his opinion, California refused to appeal the decision.

At this point, proponents of Prop 8 (who were private citizens) stepped in to defend the law, appealing to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The 9th Circuit upheld Judge Walker’s decision.

The proponents of Prop 8 then appealed to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court issued the June 26 decision, holding that the proponents of Prop 8 did not have standing to intervene to defend the law. “Standing” means that a party to a case has a real and specific injury that can be cured by a favorable court decision, and is required by the US Constitution. The US Supreme Court held that the proponents of Prop 8 had “no direct stake” in the outcome of the case. The Court has “never before upheld the standing of a private party to defend the constitutionality of a state statute when state officials have chosen not to.”

What this means is that because the proponents of Prop 8 cannot defend the law, the case was sent back to the 9th Circuit with instructions to dismiss the appeal and lift the stay (or ban) on same-sex marriages. The 9th Circuit lifted the stay on June 28, 2013 with a one-sentence opinion: “The stay in the above matter is dissolved effective immediately.” With that, same-sex marriage became legal in California.

What Does This Mean for California Same-Sex Couples?

As of the issuing of these decisions, same-sex marriages have begun to take place in California. Although the ramifications of these two decisions will become more defined in the coming weeks and months, there are a few common questions that can be answered here.

If same-sex couples, who are residents of California (or any state that recognizes same-sex marriage) get married in any of the “accepting” states, they will be able to file a federal income tax return as married couples and receive the full range of federal benefits that come with marriage. However, if a same-sex couple resides in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage (or criminalizes it) and comes to California to get married, they will only be eligible for some federal benefits. As the future unfolds, it will become more clear as to what benefits these will be.

What About Out of State Same Sex Couples Who Are Married in California?

Couples who come to California from states that do not recognize same-sex marriage to get married should be wary of Marriage Evasion statutes. These statutes can impose criminal penalties for going to another state to get married because you know that your marriage would be illegal in the state where you permanently reside.

For couples concerned about immigration status, there is good news. Receipt of marriage-based immigration benefits looks at the validity of marriage in the place of celebration, so if a same-sex couple is married in a state that recognizes gay marriage, their marriage will be considered valid in terms of immigration benefits.

The Prop 8 and DOMA decisions have taken us big step forward in giving same-sex individuals and couples equal rights. And, California is no longer behind Iowa in offering equal rights to its citizens.

If you have any questions about the Prop 8 and DOMA decisions and what they might mean to you, please contact Christina Sherman at (415) 457-4367 or email her at

Prepared with help from and Family Law Section e-news, June 26, 2013 FLEXCOM Special Announcement

Warren Major LLP is a Marin County CA family law firm specializing in divorce, child custody and support, marital contracts and other family law issues.

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