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Supreme Court Asked to Rule on Gay Widow's Estate Tax Refund Case

  • July 20th, 2012

The surviving spouse of a lesbian couple is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on her case challenging a federal law that defines “marriage” as a union between a man and a woman.  If she wins, the woman, Edith Windsor, will receive a refund of more than $363,000 in estate taxes she was forced to pay because the federal government did not consider her married to her spouse.

As ElderLawAnswers reported, a federal district court judge ruled in June that the Defense of Marriage Act's (DOMA's) denial of equal benefits to same-sex couples violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment, and the judge awarded Ms. Windsor reimbursement for the tax bill she paid on her wife's estate.  (Heterosexual spouses can leave any amount of property to their spouses free of federal estate tax.)

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A congressional legal group authorized by Republicans to defend DOMA quickly filed an appeal of the district court’s ruling with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  Ms. Windsor’s lawyers are hoping to speed up the case by jumping to the Supreme Court, which has been asked to hear two other cases challenging the statute.  “The Court will likely decide the constitutionality of DOMA this coming term, using one or more of these cases as vehicles for addressing the issue,” according to a blog post by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping to represent Ms. Windsor. 

"Edie Windsor, who recently celebrated her 83rd birthday, suffers from a serious heart condition," said Roberta Kaplan, a partner at the firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP and counsel to Ms. Windsor. "Because the District Court's ruling in her favor is entitled to an automatic stay of enforcement, Edie cannot yet receive a refund of the unconstitutional estate tax that she was forced to pay simply for being gay. The constitutional injury inflicted on Edie should be remedied within her lifetime." 

In the meantime, Ms. Windsor will continue to defend her victory before the Second Circuit, which has agreed to hear her case on an expedited basis, with oral argument scheduled for September.

Background of the Case

Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer became engaged in 1967 and were married in Canada in 2007, although they lived in New York City. When Ms. Spyer died in 2009, Ms. Windsor had to pay Ms Spyer's estate tax bill because of DOMA, a 1996 law that denies federal recognition of gay marriages.

Although New York State considered the couple married, the federal government did not and taxed Ms. Syper's estate as though the two were not married. Ms. Windsor sued the U.S. government seeking to have DOMA declared unconstitutional and asking for a refund of the more than $363,000 federal estate tax she was forced to pay.

On June 6, 2012, federal court judge Barbara Jones from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that there was no rational basis for DOMA's prohibition on recognizing same-sex marriages. Jones stated that it was unclear how DOMA preserves traditional marriage, which is one of the stated purposes of the law.  As ElderLawAnswers reported last year, President Obama decided to stop defending DOMA, so members of Congress formed an advisory group to defend the law. This was the fifth case to strike down DOMA.

For more on the decision to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, click here and here.

Last Modified: 07/20/2012

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