The Supreme Court recently repealed sections of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had previously limited the definition of marriage to mean a legal union between a man and a woman. Marriage actually isn’t a federal institution; it is handled at the state level. However, the federal government still needs to recognize the union before married couples can receive federal benefits. Prior to the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government didn’t recognize marriage between same-sex couples, even if it happened in state where same-sex marriages are legal.
At a basic level, this means that many same-sex couples who were legally married in a state where same-sex marriage is legal were not recognized as married by the federal government. This caused inequities in the federal benefits available to same-sex couples compared to the benefits available to married heterosexual couples. The recent Supreme Court ruling, however, changes this. According to CNN, the repeal of the DOMA Act will open up over 1,000 benefits to same-sex couples. Benefits that were previously off-limits because the marriage was not recognized by the federal government.
There are literally hundreds of ways this ruling will affect same-sex couples, and much of this is still in the air as far as how this will be implemented and when. We will limit this coverage to include a few things regarding how the repeal of the DOMA Act will affect military members.
Military Benefits Previously Unavailable for Same Sex Couples
Until very recently, the military outlawed homosexuality through the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell rules. The basic rule was you could be homosexual in the military as long as you weren’t open about it. That was recently changed, and it is now legal to be a homosexual in the US military. However, the Defense of Marriage Act prohibited married same-sex couples in the military from being eligible for the same benefits available to heterosexual married couples.
The repeal of the DOMA Act now makes it easier for same-sex couples to live in base housing, share benefits, travel together overseas, and have a family that is recognized by the military.
Benefits Now Available to Same-Sex Military Spouses
Benefits include ID Cards, health benefits, military burial, and more. Prior to these changes, same-sex couples in the military dealt with a lot of red tape, often times being separated in ways heterosexual couples were not. Same-sex spouses were not allowed to have military ID cards, so they weren’t able to access bases on their own, couldn’t use base facilities, were not eligible for health care, and more. (I am writing this in the past tense, even though this is still the case in most instances. These changes will roll out over the next few months).
According to the Washington Times:
After a customary 25-day waiting period following Supreme Court rulings, the Pentagon will begin to make available to homosexual spouses all the benefits that heterosexual spouses enjoy, including burial at military cemeteries, defense officials said.
The Pentagon already had planned to begin issuing military ID cards to the same-sex partners of military personnel, starting Sept. 1. Issuing the cards will take between six to 12 weeks, officials said Wednesday.
Once a same-sex spouse has a military ID, he or she will be entered into the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) system and will be afforded all the benefits afforded to heterosexual spouses, including (but not limited to) base access, medical and dental care, base exchange and commissary benefits, rights to travel to a new base for a Permanent Change of Station (PCS), ability to travel with spouses to overseas assignments, survivor benefits, and more.
Which Benefits will be Available, and When?
Right now, it appears as though there will be a short waiting period while the military verifies the Supreme Court rulings and work on writing the new rules into their books. After that point, same-sex spouses will be offered the same benefits as heterosexual military spouses. This means they should be eligible for an ID card, base access, military housing or BAH with the dependent rate, medical and dental care through TRICARE, commissary and base exchange privileges, Space Available travel, MWR access, survivor benefits, military burials, and more.
Who is eligible for same-sex benefits?
This is a little less clear. I did my best to find some clear language on this topic, but I wasn’t able to find anything conclusive. Let’s go back to the Supreme Court ruling that repealed the Defense of Marriage Act. The ruling simply stated that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to limit the definition of a marriage. The ruling opened to door to federal benefits for married couples, regardless of their sex. This distinction is important because marriage between same-sex couples is only available in 12 states, plus the District of Columbia (again, marriage eligibility is determined at the state level, not federal level. There is no federal standard for marriage).
Seven other states recognize civil unions and domestic partnerships, but do not classify these arrangements as marriage. This is an important difference because these relationships are not recognized by the federal government as a marriage, and these relationships aren’t eligible for many of the benefits available to married couples. There are 32 states that do not have a legal classification for same-sex relationships.
My initial guess is that only married same-sex couples will be eligible for military benefits because the only ruling changed by the Supreme Court dealt with how the federal government recognizes same-sex marriage. However, I recommend waiting until the official word is released by the Pentagon.
What About VA Benefits for Same-Sex Couples?
The VA has yet to release guidance on this topic, but as they are a federal agency, they should soon be opening their doors to same-sex couples in the near future. This would likely have an impact for veterans receiving VA Disability compensation at the with dependents rate. You will likely need to amend your VA claim to add a dependent once the VA issues guidance on this topic.
What Else Do You Need to Know?
There are other financial impacts to these changes including the ability to file a joint federal tax return, avoid the gift tax limitations between spouses, easier estate planning between same-sex couples, and more. You can read about some of these changes here. Again, as of now, these changes will only apply to married couples.
Stay Tuned for Updates
As mentioned above, this is a new ruling, and much is still up in the air regarding how and when many of these changes will roll out. If this affects you, then please follow this topic. The best place to go for up to date information will be your base personnel office, as they should have access and training on the latest regulations and procedures.