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'Husband' And 'Wife' Lose Their Meaning...In The Revised Tax Code

"I support gay marriage. I believe they have a right to be as miserable as the rest of us."

-Kinky Friedman, singer and songwriter

And so it is. Thanks to two rulings by the Supreme Court, the miseries (and joys) of marriage can now be shared by same-sex couples and heterosexual couples alike in all fifty states. The very word marriage took on a new legal definition. So, too, last month, did the words husband, wife, and spouse - if only for tax purposes.

According to the Federal Register, all spouse-related words needed to lose their gender specificity in order for the tax code to make any sense of marriage equality. The IRS now recognizes terms including husband and wife simply to mean individuals lawfully married to each other, regardless of their biological disposition. This was the only way to ensure that all wedded individuals could partake in the privilege of paying taxes.

Two Landmark Decisions

The background is by now well-known: In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to restrict federal interpretation of the terms "marriage" and "spouse" to heterosexual couples; this paved the way for the monumental 2015 ruling, which legalized gay marriage throughout the country. The outcomes were immediately felt in Florida, where 1,400 same-sex couples were married in the first two days after the ruling.

It quickly became clear that the tax code, at least as it pertained to married couples, needed to redefine some of its terms.

Definitions Matter

Terminology carries weighty legal implications. There are, in the tax code, specific filing instructions for wives (and husbands). Yet how are such instructions to be followed if neither spouse identifies as a wife (or husband)?

The only - or, at least, the easiest - solution was, in a sense, to democratize the terms. That is, to broaden their meanings. Now, just as marriage has been made available to all, so have the identifiers husband and wife. (Although this stems not so much from a call for social change as from the IRS's mandate that everyone meet their tax obligations.)

Divorce and taxes

Same-sex couples waited a long time for the right to marry. They waited still longer, in many states, for the right to divorce. Now they have been incorporated into the legal tax code.

This may not all be to the good. Complications often arise when divorce and taxes meet. When couples separate and divide their property, the most common oversight is failing to account for certain assets' tax liabilities. Indeed, a spouse who believes s/he is receiving a proper share may end up mired in tax-related debt. In most cases, forensic accountants and attorneys must be enlisted to help ensure a modicum of fairness.

As Kinky Friedman might have said, not only can same-sex couples now participate in the miseries of marriage, but in those of divorce taxation, too.

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