June 26 marks the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic decision to legalize same-sex marriages across the nation. With this single act, same-sex couples gained equal access to the all the legal benefits of marriage, no matter where they live or travel in the U.S.
"It was definitely a red-letter day for the LGBT community."
Christopher Thangaraj, senior vice president of portfolio strategy and analytics
Marital status governs about 1,130 federal laws that apply to benefits, rights and privileges, such as shared property benefits, joint parenting and next-of-kin emergency medical decision rights. Legal recognition of same-sex marriage not only validates committed, same-sex couples' relationships but it also gives them access to these rights, providing a foundation of financial, legal and cultural safety for their families. Today, everything from taxes to home purchases to retirement planning is simpler for this group, and fully protected by federal laws.
"It was definitely a red-letter day for the LGBT community," remembers Christopher Thangaraj, senior vice president of portfolio strategy and analytics at Bank of America in Chicago, Ill. Thangaraj, who entered into a civil union with his partner in 2012, says the decision was emotionally satisfying. "I now feel that I'm a full citizen and a full participant in our democracy," he says. In 2014, his civil union was recognized as a marriage in Illinois and he is now legally married in the U.S.
Shannon Keene, senior vice president and product consultant at Bank of America in Harrisburg, Pa., was already legally married to her wife in June 2015. "When I heard the news about the decision, it felt as if we were already there," comments Keene. "But I did think, finally my marriage was the same as my sister's marriage to my brother-in-law and would be recognized just like all other marriages in the country."
Looking back from the vantage point of 12 months of experience, here's how they and Merrill Lynch advisor Bill Moran, who works with LGBT couples, see these changes manifesting in day-to-day life.
Enjoying full access to the financial benefits of marriage
Bill Moran, Merrill Lynch advisor
"The most frequent question that I'm asked now is, 'Should we get married?'" says Moran. "They want to know what marriage means financially and how it will affect them."
Since last June, several of Moran's same-sex couple clients who have been together for 20 to 30 years are deciding to get married now to take advantage of the attendant financial benefits. These include tax benefits from filing jointly, joint property ownership, elimination of inheritance taxes (spouses are exempt) and Social Security benefits, among others. One couple got married because they live in Virginia, which has community property laws that are friendlier to married couples. For example, if a person dies without a will, in some states, the estate automatically passes to the surviving spouse.
Another couple was considering getting married in order to take advantage of Social Security's spousal loophole that was available to anyone turning 66 before May 2, 2016. After one spouse suspended his or her benefits, Social Security benefits allowed the other spouse to file for his or her spousal benefit, which was 50% of the suspending spouse's benefit. This unintentional loophole allowed couples to receive some Social Security income while one spouse's suspended payment increased by 8% per year until the suspension was lifted. The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 closed the loophole, but before May 2, legally married couples were able continue to file to receive the 50% benefit while a spouse's benefits were suspended.
When it comes to overall financial issues, Moran finds no difference in the questions regarding money management that same-sex and heterosexual couples ask when they decide to get married. In addition, while marriage is not a given for committed same-sex couples, the option to do so prompts Moran to talk about it with his clients.
"I have to have real conversations with clients," says Moran. "I say, okay, if you're not going to get married, then we have to go through the extra hoops that will make sure your wishes are protected. Then I go back to doing the same stuff that I've been doing for the last 15 years for clients, such as establishing trusts to ensure that partners receive their intended inheritances."
Legal marriage relieves fears and undue burdens
Shannon Keene and her family
Now that same-sex couples can marry in any state, the legal protections and rights they need for their children, health and property are exactly the same as for heterosexual couples. That in itself relieves a lot of stress.
Before Keene and her wife, Brienne, held their commitment ceremony in 2010, they worked with a lawyer to make their partnership as legally binding as they could without being married. Despite all of their efforts, however, going to the hospital to give birth to their two children involved a paper chase.
"I had to make sure the hospital had all the paperwork that said Brienne would make the decisions if something happened to me or the baby," says Keene. "It's nice to think we don't have to worry about that anymore. I don't panic now every time I have to go to the doctor."
When Keene and her wife were married in 2014 in Keene's home state of Delaware, they revised their wills, estate plans and other legal documents. Couples in civil unions or other legal arrangements that choose to get married should update their financial and legal arrangements like any other married couple.
The cultural shift is here now
"I don't think any of us ever anticipated how quickly this ball started rolling," says Keene. "And when it did, it rolled fast. Now we're tearing walls down faster than anybody can put them back up."
Keene adds that since June 2015, being part of a same-sex couple doesn't seem to be a big deal anymore. "We've even started to see forms change over the last year. Instead of Mother and Father, they now say Parent 1 and Parent 2," she says.
Thangaraj also sees an impact in the attitudes and intentions of gay men. He now hears men in their 20s talking about marriage in a way he would never have considered in his youth.
The true benefit for society is that all couples, regardless of lifestyle, now have equal access to all the benefits of marriage regardless of where they live in the U.S. They enjoy the same rights and freedoms, as well as access to coverage and protection of their partners, children and finances.
Connect with an advisor and start a conversation about your goals.
Give us a call at
9am - 9pm EST, Monday - Friday
Neither Merrill Lynch nor any of its affiliates or financial advisors provide legal, tax or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.
This material does not take into account your particular investment objectives, financial situations or needs and is not intended as a recommendation, offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security, financial instrument, or strategy. Before acting on any information in this material, you should consider whether it is suitable for your particular circumstances and, if necessary, seek professional advice. Any opinions expressed herein are given in good faith, and are subject to change without notice, and are only correct as of the stated date of their issue.