Despite the fact that Washington now recognizes domestic partnerships as the equivalent of marriage under state law, there are still significant obstacles for same-sex couples under federal law. Probably the most significant obstacle that same-sex couples face is the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The following is a summary of DOMA and an overview of how the law can affect domestic partnerships, despite their newfound status in the state of Washington.
DOMA went into effect in 1996 and is the federal law that defines marriage as being only between a man and a woman. The law also allows any state to refuse to acknowledge same-sex marriage. While this may seem inconsequential, especially when states are beginning to recognize same-sex marriage despite the federal government's position, the law can have serious consequences on same-sex couples who are seeking divorce.
The greatest consequence that DOMA can have on a same-sex couple seeking a divorce is financial. Because DOMA defines marriage as "only" between a man and a woman, same-sex couples are not entitled to many of the tax benefits extended to heterosexual couples. For example, most divorce-related transactions are tax-free under federal law. With DOMA, however, same-sex couples will not receive this benefit, which could be very costly for some.
Another consequence of DOMA is that certain federal benefits become expensive, if not impossible, to divide. This could include military benefits, social security or federal pensions, which cannot be transferred to a former same-sex partner following a divorce. Without this federal recognition, same-sex couple going through a divorce experience may have much more expensive, complex and lengthy divorce proceedngs than heterosexual couples.
Portland Press Herald, "Same-sex divorce raises new legal issues," Eric Russell, Jan. 6, 2013