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Nov 30 2012

Second Circuit Court of Appeals Holds DOMA Unconstitutional

On October 18, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which covers New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, joined the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in declaring Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 (“DOMA”) unconstitutional. Windsor v. U.S., Docket No. 12-2335-cv (2nd Cir. Oct. 18, 2012).

Section 3 of DOMA defines “marriage” as a legal union between one man and one woman for purposes of federal law, thereby precluding same-sex spouses from certain benefits and coverages under the Social Security Act, ERISA, and the Internal Revenue Code.

The Windsor case involved a same-sex couple who were legally married in Canada, and who resided in New York, a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, for the duration of their 40-year union. Upon the death of one of the spouses, the IRS imposed over $350,000 in federal estate taxes on the survivor. These taxes would not have been imposed if the couple’s marriage were recognized for purposes of federal law.

In reviewing the lower court’s finding that DOMA is unconstitutional, the Second Circuit agreed that Section 3 of DOMA violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees equal protection of the laws to all individuals within a state’s (and the federal government’s) jurisdiction.

It is widely expected that this case, along with several other cases addressing the constitutionality of DOMA, will be heard by the United States Supreme Court in the coming months. If the Supreme Court finds Section 3 of DOMA unconstitutional, ERISA-covered plans will no longer be permitted to rely on DOMA to exclude benefits for same-sex spouses.