Ask Lambda Legal – After DOMA: What Does the Ruling Mean for You?

Q: Now that the Defense of Marriage Act is gone, what will it mean for my family?
A:  The victory in June at the Supreme Court was an amazing time for our community, but we also know there will be a lot of questions in the weeks and months ahead. In the decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of DOMA, which defined marriage as being between one man and one woman for the purposes of federal law, was unconstitutional. There are more than 1,100 places in federal law where a protection or responsibility is based on marital status. Federal agencies — large bureaucracies — may need and take some time to change forms, implement procedures, train personnel, and efficiently incorporate same-sex couples into the spousal-based system.

Until same-sex couples can marry in every state in the nation, there will be uncertainty about the extent to which same-sex spouses will receive federal marital-based protections nationwide. For federal programs that assess marital status based on the law of a state that does not respect marriages of same-sex couples, those state laws will likely pose obstacles for legally married couples and surviving spouses in accessing federal protections and responsibilities.

Depending on the benefit that couples are seeking, the federal government’s approach to recognizing married same-sex couples varies. For example, some benefits — like veterans benefits — are guided by whether a couple lives in a state that recognizes their marriage. Other benefits — like spousal immigration rights — are based on whether the state in which the couple married recognizes their marriage as valid. And for issues like filing federal taxes, we expect more guidance from the Internal Revenue Service about how couples in civil unions should proceed.

Lambda Legal and 10 other national LGBT advocacy organizations have jointly issued a series of fact sheets to guide same-sex couples and their families as they navigate accessing federal rights, benefits and protections.

The fact sheets are intended to provide general information regarding major areas of federal marriage-based rights and protections offered by federal agencies. It is essential that same-sex couples consult an attorney for individualized legal advice before making a decision. People must carefully consider their decisions about when and where to marry, even as advocates work toward equality.

Visit to learn more. Certain fact sheets are available in Spanish.

The fact sheets were created by American Civil Liberties Union, Center for American Progress, Family Equality Council, Freedom to Marry, Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, Human Rights Campaign, Immigration Equality, Lambda Legal, National Center for Lesbian Rights, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and OutServe-SLDN.

If you feel you have been discriminated against based on your sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status, please contact our Legal Help Desk at

Susan Sommer is the director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, the national organization that works to secure full civil rights for LGBT people.

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