For the most part, same-sex couples face the same financial issues that opposite-sex couples face. Unless there’s a marriage issue involved.
Once marriage enters the picture, things get “complicated, from beginning to end,” says Lisa Siegel, a senior vice president and financial planner at Wells Fargo in New York. Siegel, who works for Wells Fargo’s private bank, advises high net worth clients, many of whom are same-sex couples, and many of whom are married (in New York it is legally recognized).
But just because some states, like New York (though not New Jersey), legally recognize same-sex marriages, there is still the matter of the federal government, which does not. And this, Siegel says, is where things like assets and monetary gifts get tangled up in conflicting laws.
Siegel will present “Financial Planning for Same-Sex Couples,” one of the workshops to be offered at “Coming of Age: Issues of Aging in the LGBT Community in the 21st Century,” on Friday, April 20, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Mercer County Office for the Disabled, 640 South Broad Street, in Trenton. Cost: $30. Visit bit.ly/HJawSe. The event is sponsored by Mercer County.
Also speaking at the event are Barbara Satin of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force; Eileen Doremus, executive director of the Mercer County Office on Aging; and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes.
When talking about the financial issues gay couples face, Siegel says it is important to know what kind of relationship is involved. Same-sex couples can be considered just “together,” or they could be involved in a domestic partnership, a civil union, or an actual marriage.
New Jersey recognizes civil unions, which are a lot like marriages, but not quite. Meanwhile, New York State does allow same-sex marriages. What this means in New Jersey is that though New York legally equates gay marriages with straight marriages, same-sex couples who married in New York and move to New Jersey are still only recognized up to the limits of civil union here.
And while the terminology and distinctions of what constitutes a same-sex couple can be a bit dense, the financial implications of who recognizes what can knot things up in a hurry.
DOMA. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which mandates that no state can be made to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state, even if it were considered a legal marriage in that state. As a result, the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage as legally binding.
This, says Siegel, is a major hang-up when dealing with same-sex couples — particularly where estate planning is concerned. Let’s say that one member of a gay couple, married in New York, dies. While New York State affords the survivor the same estate benefits it would afford a married straight couple, the federal government will not.
The biggest issue here is a same-sex couple’s inability to defer the estate tax. When one member of a straight married couple dies, the surviving member can claim the value of the estate (up to whatever dollar figure the federal government allows) without having to pay the estate tax. And the estate tax can be significant.
In 2012 the estate tax exemption is a little more than $5 million, which, Siegel says, has climbed from about $600,000 in 2001. But in 2013 the exemption will drop to $1 million. Add to this the fact that in 2012 the maximum percentage the government can take from the value of an estate is 35; next year it will be 55.
What this means is that in the event of the death of a straight spouse, the estate can put off paying the estate tax (up to the exemption point) until the second spouse dies. But in the death of a gay spouse, since DOMA does not recognize same-sex couples as married, the survivor owes the government a hefty percentage of the estate’s value.
Siegel sees this as patently unfair. “You shouldn’t be hit with the loss of half your estate,” she says.
Buying a house. Two men who buy a house together are not necessarily romantically involved — it could be a standard business arrangement, Siegel says; a joint investment in a property. But often, gay couples have to approach the buying of a home in this fashion.
Let’s say a same-sex couple buys a $1 million house, and one partner pays for the whole thing. “In effect, that partner has just made a $500,000 gift to the other,” Siegel says. Now, if this couple is considered unmarried (which a gay couple is under federal law), it will have to file a gift tax, whereas a married couple will not.
Divorce. One thing to know about a same-sex divorce, Siegel says, is where the divorce is taking place. A gay couple married in New York, living in New York, then divorcing in New York largely will have the same experience (financially and legally) as a straight couple getting divorced.
But if that couple marries in New York and then moves to Florida, where there is no legal recognition of same-sex couplehood, the state will not divorce them, and whatever legal or financial benefits the couple might have had in New York will not exist in Florida.
Siegel grew up in Florida and earned her bachelor’s in accounting from the University of Florida before starting her career in accounting. She earned her J.D. from Nova Southeastern University in 1995 so that she could practice trust and estate law, which she did there and in New York until 2006. She also attended NYU for an LLM in taxation. She joined Wells Fargo in 2007 because she wanted to combine her aptitude for finance with her knowledge of estate law.
Bright spots. New Jersey and New York are two of the friendliest states toward gay couples (despite that gay rights activists are livid with Governor Chris Christie for vetoing the gay marriage act earlier this year). Though New Jersey does not recognize gay marriage, the fact that it recognizes civil unions “is not insignificant,” Siegel says. And in these two states are many companies (Wells Fargo included) that allow for same-sex partners to provide healthcare benefits and insurance benefits between partners.
There also are state-level taxes that benefit couples who are considered more serious than single, though things are not so straightforward come tax season. In New York, Siegel says, same-sex married couples must, by law, file their state taxes jointly (no option for “married, filing singly”), yet since DOMA does not recognize gay marriage, these same couples must file their federal taxes as individuals.
Siegel, though not in a same-sex relationship herself, awaits the day when DOMA is repealed and same-sex couples can claim the financial benefits that straight married couples can. “Same-sex couples have to do so much more work,” she says. “I’m sure some of their accountants are happy, but it’s not fair.”