Monday, October 05, 2009

The other marriage penalty

The Oct. 2 New York Times ran an illuminating analysis that attempts to quantify the lifetime financial costs incurred by same-sex couples for living in a country that doesn't recognize their right to marry. Reporters Tara Siegel Bernard and Ron Lieber estimate gay couples could be paying anywhere from $28,595 to $211,993 more than financially similar straight couples.

Few will be surprised to learn that access to affordable health insurance is a big driver of this disparity. Most U.S. companies and governments - including the State of Texas - do not allow their employees to cover same-sex spouses as dependents under their group health plans. Even if a company offers domestic partner coverage, the federal tax code treats a same-sex partner's coverage as taxable income, so you can't use pretax dollars to pay the premiums.

Same-sex couples also get screwed on Social Security benefits, estate taxes, adoption costs, and pension plans that pay a survivor benefit to a heterosexual spouse but not a same-sex one. They cannot fund a non-working spouse's portion of a joint IRA and they wind up paying higher legal fees to codify rights that straight couples take for granted.

The one area where heterosexual couples might pay more is if both of them earn roughly the same amount, which could trigger the so-called "marriage penalty." However, this doesn't even come close to making up for all the ways our system cheats same-sex couples. Equal protection, anyone?

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