Federal Court Grants Marital Estate Exemption to Lesbian Widower

In another heavy blow to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a federal court in New York has ruled that the federal estate exemption granted to married spouses must be honored in the case of a surviving lesbian partner.  The case of Edith Windsor (Windsor v. USA, SD New York, US District Court, 1:10 ev-08435-BSJ, issued June 6, 2012) was filed by Windsor after her partner of more than 45 years died.  Because of DOMA Windsor’s partner (Thea Spyer)’s estate had to pay more than $350,000 in estate taxes – which would not have been paid had their marriage been federal recognized. 

Windsor faced a great many hurdles in this case.  Windsor and Spyer had gotten married in Canada in 2007, but their marriage was not legally recognized in a statutory sense in their home state of New York at the time of Spyer’s death in 2009.  The court disregarded this argument, relying on a variety of trial court and appellate court decisions honoring out-of-state marriages prior to 2009.  The court also refused to defer to the 40-year-old United States Supreme Court case ofBaker v. Nelson (409 U.S. 10), which affirmed a Minnesota statute disallowing same-sex marriages. 

Fortunately, the court had the courage to look to broader legal principles to reach its decision.  The judge asserted that courts need to strictly scrutinize legislation that infringes on a fundamental right, and that the doctrine of equal protection requires the government to treat all similarly situated persons alike.  From this perspective, DOMA cannot be upheld by the court.  There was no rational basis for Congress to enact DOMA, especially to the extent requires the federal government to disregard a lawful marriage of another state or country. The arguments proffered by the proponents of DOMA do not meet constitutional standards, and there is no rational link between the stated arguments and the impacts of DOMA. 

For these reasons, the court ruled that DOMA is unconstitutional, and therefore Windsor is entitled to a full refund of the estate taxes paid by Spyer’s estate.

This is a strongly-written decision, and follows the trend of a series of federal trial court cases declaring DOMA unconstitutional.  Most likely it will be appealed — perhaps not by the government lawyers but by the same Congressional “team” that is appealing the other DOMA decisions.  While it will take at least another year, maybe two, before there is certainty from the appellate courts – and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court, every positive trial court decision is a helpful voice added to the choir.

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One Response to “Federal Court Grants Marital Estate Exemption to Lesbian Widower”

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