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Equality of the taxes

As of last Thursday, thousands of American families will now be able to claim crucial tax protections and benefits they were previously denied.

In what is arguably the federal government’s most significant rule change since the Supreme Court’s watershed June decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the Treasury Department and its Internal Revenue Service have mandated that all legally married same-sex couples be treated as such for the purposes of federal taxation.

Gay couples legally married will now be treated no differently than their straight neighbors: They will be required to file their federal tax returns in the same way that other married couples always have.

It’s heartening to see the federal government prioritize this issue. Equalizing federal tax standards wasn’t a simple fix, and it took far more than the stroke of a pen.

The IRS ultimately decided to adapt a 1958 ruling that dealt with a similar logistic problem involving common-law marriages. Common-law marriages can be contracted in only some states, but many couples in those unions reside in states that don’t recognize them. In 1958, the solution was to base tax policies on where a couple was married, rather than where they live, and this is the same logic used in the decision the IRS announced.

Of course, some significant headaches remain for couples who live in one of the 37 so-called “non-recognition” states and for administrators in those states. It’s likely that gay couples in such states still will have to file individual state tax returns. But given that federal taxable income is often used as the starting point for state taxation, non-recognition states will have to provide at least some sort of guidance for their citizens moving forward. If they don’t, a regulatory nightmare is bound to follow.

The updated standards are a welcome addition and an important step in the nuts-and-bolts implementation of equality.

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