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July 9, 2015

A Nationwide Right: Same-Sex Marriage Legalized in a Monumental Decision and its Impact on Estate Planning

June 26, 2015. A date that will undoubtedly be added to our history books and remembered for generations. This is because on this day, the Supreme Court of the United States guaranteed the right to same-sex marriage nationwide, in a 5-4 ruling.

Leading up to the June 26th decision, 14 same-sex couples and two men whose same-sex partners were deceased brought their cases through the ranks of their state courts in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. These states define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. After an uphill battle at home, and a decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit which provided that no state had a constitutional requirement to license a same-sex couple or recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state, the Court granted review of the case on two issues: first, whether states are allowed to ban same-sex marriage and second, whether states have to recognize lawful marriages performed in another state.

The Court, in an opinion delivered by Justice Kennedy, held that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in all states and that no state has the authority to refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage legally performed in another state.

As the wave of this decision moves across the nation, a ripple will be felt in corners of society. Estate planning, in particular, will be moved by the impact. Same-sex couples will now be afforded the same benefits offered to opposite-sex couples, during life or upon disability or death. These rights include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Spousal and intestate rights of inheritance.
  • Spousal support in the event of death or divorce.
  • Guardian and conservator priority.
  • Spousal and survivor benefits paid by Social Security.
  • The right for both individuals of a same-sex couple to be named as the parents of an adopted child.

As a result, alternative estate planning will no longer be required for same-sex couples.

Amidst the excitement, couples may find themselves ready to dash to the local County Clerk's office to obtain a marriage license or hastily shopping for a wedding venue. However, prior to saying "I do," couples should consider the financial, legal, and personal impact of marriage. If marriage is waiting around the corner, Varnum encourages couples to consider how they and their families can benefit from rights that are now accessible to all married couples as a result of this historic decision.

While it is a couple's responsibility to secure the personal joys that attach to a strong and lasting marriage, a creative and thoughtfully-designed estate plan, beginning with a will and/or trust, is an important foundation to protect many of the financial and legal rights that same-sex couples now enjoy.

Varnum's team of attorneys are always available to discuss all couple's visions for the future and to assist with the preparation and implementation of estate and succession plans to continue legacies for generations to come.

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