Same-sex marriage offers few new benefits

State’s domestic partnership law already provides advantages

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

Published:

Updated: January 15, 2012, 11:31 PM

 

Domestic partnerships

The number of domestic partnerships in Clark County cities:

Amboy: 6

Camas: 22

Battle Ground: 27

La Center: 2

Ridgefield: 10

Vancouver: 320

Yacolt: 4

Washougal: 15

Woodland: 4

Source: Washington Secretary of State

Domestic partners Joslyn Baker and Sarah Butler of Salmon Creek said they would marry if Washington becomes the seventh state to legalize same-sex marriage this year.

“We would get married in a second,” Baker said. “It gives us public recognition of our relationship.”

But for now, the advantages of marriage for same-sex couples would end with recognition.

Legalizing same-sex marriage, as Gov. Christine Gregoire has proposed, would not offer any material benefits that the state’s domestic partnership law doesn’t already provide (or will provide by 2014). Apart from the label of marriage, domestic partnership benefits in Washington are nearly identical to marriage benefits. That includes, among other things, the ability to make medical decisions for an incapacitated domestic partner and the option to add a domestic partner to a family health insurance plan provided by an employer. Those same-sex benefits end at the state line. The federal government, bound by the Defense of Marriage Act, doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships or same-sex marriage. Hence, same-sex couples receive none of the federal benefits of marriage.

They don’t qualify for marriage tax benefits. They are subject to different IRS tax rules and don’t enjoy the same benefits as opposite-sex partners. They pay federal gift taxes on property they give to or share with their partners. They pay state and federal estate taxes on assets they leave to their partners. Domestic partners in Washington will no longer have to pay state estate taxes starting in 2014.

Complicated tax issues

Filing taxes has been complicated for same-sex couples since 2010, when the IRS made them subject to community property laws. The laws exist only in Washington, California and Nevada.

The change could be seen as a victory in the movement toward recognition of same-sex unions because it made same-sex couples subject to laws that govern opposite-sex unions, at least in this one respect. But the change also has caused confusion in filing taxes because domestic partners still aren’t allowed to file a federal joint tax return due to the Defense of Marriage Act.

The change requires domestic partners in community property states to split their income when filing their individual returns. If one partner makes $75,000 in income and the other earns $25,000, they are required to combine salaries and each report $50,000 in income, said Jordan Heitzman with RainCity CPA in Seattle. RainCity specializes in domestic partner tax issues. The requirement becomes more complicated when reporting joint property. The returns can’t be filed online and usually require the assistance of a CPA.

“Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the IRS can’t make a tax form to reconcile this,” Heitzman said. “I do this, every CPA does this, on a (Microsoft) Excel sheet. People can’t do this on their own. It’s so convoluted trying to determine what is common property and what is separate property.”

Fruit Valley resident Anna Petruolo said she and her domestic partner, Lisa Robbins, had to hire Heitzman because they couldn’t find a local CPA who was familiar with the process.

Those complexities wouldn’t change with state-sanctioned same-sex marriage. Federal marriage tax benefits would come only with a change in federal law.

Still, same-sex marriage in Washington would be an important step toward recognition on the federal level, said Joshua Friedes, marriage equality director at Seattle’s Equal Rights Washington.

“It’s a very powerful statement by the state that it believes gay and lesbian couples are equally valuable as straight couples,” Friedes said. “The state draws no distinction and believes all families deserve dignity and equal protection.”

There were 9,279 couples registered as domestic partners with the Secretary of State’s office as of Friday. That number includes heterosexual partnerships between people 62 and older in addition to same-sex couples. More than 400 couples registered as domestic partners live in Clark County, said Brian Zylstra, deputy communications director at the Secretary of State’s office.

Rights misunderstood

Friedes said the challenge for domestic partners is that few people understand the rights domestic partners are entitled to.

“Everybody understands the spousal relationship,” Friedes said. “Almost nobody understands what a domestic partnership is. That creates increased problems for gay and lesbian families, especially at times of crisis. Domestic partnership does give you hospital visitation rights, but some people don’t know that. Domestic partners are constantly being challenged at the moments of greatest stress.”

Salmon Creek’s Baker said she encountered the ambiguities of domestic partnership when she and her domestic partner tried to join Hazel Dell’s Lake Shore Athletic Club. Baker said staff members told them they couldn’t buy a married couple membership and offered them the roommate rate instead. Baker had to call Seattle attorney David Ward of Legal Voice, a women’s rights advocacy group, to convince the health club management to relent and offer them a couple’s membership.

Ryan Goode, Lake Shore Athletic Club’s general manager, said same-sex couples are welcome at the health club and are offered the married couple rate.

“We have other gay couples who belong here,” Goode said.

Vancouver resident Richard Prentice, who is married, said he objects to sharing the distinction of marriage with same-sex couples. He said he defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

“I don’t want homosexuality flaunted as part of our lifestyle because it is against morality,” Prentice said. “Give them their domestic partnership rights but not (the word) ‘marriage.’ I definitely want clarity as far as title.”

A bill to legalize same-sex marriage is expected to be filed by the end of the week, said state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, who has been a leader in marriage-equality legislation. A tally by the Associated Press on lawmakers’ positions on the issue indicated the measure is likely to pass.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends;http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com.