What the same-sex marriage ruling means in Alaska

mtheriault@adn.comJune 26, 2013 

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act has broad implications for Alaska's same-sex couples who married where it is legal to do so. The implications span from employment and military benefits to immigration rules but many questions about the ruling's impacts remain unanswered, according to legal experts from the ACLU of Alaska, Lambda Legal Foundation and Anchorage attorney Allison Mendel.

What the decision will do:

• A couple married in a state or country where same-sex marriage is legal (such as Washington, California or Canada) could return to Alaska and have the marriage recognized by federal law for some purposes, said Peter Renn of the Lambda Legal Foundation.

• The federal government must extend employment benefits to the spouses of married same-sex couples, according to the Lambda Legal Foundation. A lot of Alaskans are federal employees: The University of Alaska's Institute for Social and Economic Research said that more than 10,200 Alaskans get government paychecks, not counting active duty military. Same-sex partners may now get access to health care and enjoy the other perks of being married to a federal worker.

• Married same-sex military service members will now get the same rights as other married couples in the military, according to Joshua Decker of the ACLU of Alaska. That includes the right to live in base housing, shop at the commissary and receive medical care.

What the decision might do:

Things get muddier with myriad other federal benefits and rules, according to attorney Allison Mendel, who has been litigating family law and employment issues in Anchorage since the 1980s. A same-sex spouse's eligibility for federal benefit programs comes down to whether the government looks at where the couple got married (called the "place of celebration" standard) or the state where they currently live (the "residence" standard) to determine marital status.

For example, a same-sex Anchorage couple who married in Seattle when it became legal to marry in Washington State might -- or might not -- be considered married by the federal government while residing in Anchorage depending on the program or benefit in question, because the standard varies. IRS and Social Security rules base marital status on the residence standard while eligibility for military and immigration benefits are usually based on the celebration standard, according to Decker of the ACLU.

And for a lot of areas, such as bankruptcy, there's no clear definition in place yet, said Renn of the Lambda Legal Foundation. "The vast majority of this will be worked out administratively," said Renn. "That means the President has a lot of power in crafting a swift, fair solution." That's likely to mean the place of celebration standard will be extended to new areas, he said.

What it won't do:

• Likely to not have any direct, immediate impact on same-sex partners who are not married, according to the ACLU of Alaska.

• Change the way married same-sex couples in Alaska file their federal income taxes in Alaska, at least right away. That's because the IRS uses the state of residence standard, according to Renn.

• Allow same-sex couples to legally marry in Alaska. That's currently prohibited through a state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

• Change rules regarding adoption, since Alaska state law governs that, according to Mendel.

• Change anything today. The ruling takes 25 days to go into effect.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.




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