Estate planning in Maryland for same sex couples is dramatically different as a result of two groundbreaking legal developments in 2013. On January 1 same sex marriage became legal in Maryland and on June 26 the Supreme Court struck down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). As a result, same sex married couples in Maryland have all the state and federal benefits afforded to their heterosexual counterparts. I underlined “married” to remind you that these benefits require a marriage (i.e., don’t dilly dally). Here are the five most important things to understand going forward:
1. No more inheritance tax surprises.
Prior to 2013, the surviving member of a same sex couple was not exempt from inheritance tax. This lead to some nasty surprises such as getting an inheritance tax bill for half of the value of the jointly owned house after the first member of the same sex couple died. (See Domestic Partnerships: How to Avoid Costly Inheritance Taxes on the Family Home). Now, so long as the same sex couple takes the steps necessary to become legally married, they are exempt from inheritance tax.
2. Enhanced Legal Protection for those Without a Will.
The law in Maryland provides certain protection to spouses when there is no Will. To begin with, a spouse has the highest priority to become the personal representative (i.e., executor). The spouse is also entitled to an intestacy share of the estate, usually one-half, in the absence of a Will. Prior to 2013, unless a same sex couple had a Will, the surviving member of the couple would not be given any priority to become personal representative and would be entitled to no share of the estate.
3. Protection from disinheritance.
Maryland law also contains provisions designed to prevent the disinheritance of a spouse. Regardless of what the Will provides, a spouse can “elect against the Will” and take a statutorily provided share – one third. Now same sex married couples also have that same protection against being disinherited.
4. Unlimited Marital Deduction from Estate Taxes.
In both the Maryland and Federal estate tax schemes, there is no limit to the amount a spouse can give to their surviving spouse without paying estate taxes. As a result of both Maryland’s enacting of same sex marriage and the defeat of DOMA, same sex married couples now enjoy the same privilege.
5. Estate Taxes Are Still a Potential Problem.
Just as with heterosexual married couples, same sex married couples need to understand that there is still a potential estate tax problem. While there is an unlimited marital deduction, there are still potential estate taxes due upon the death of the second spouse. The second-to-die still can only give away $1 million dollars in Maryland tax free (federally the number is $5.25 million). Thus for same sex couples whose taxable estate may be more than a million at the death of the second spouse, estate tax planning should be considered. (See No. 5 in The 5 Most Important Reasons to Have a Will). Don’t think you have enough assets to worry about this? Remember, the taxable estate includes anything that passes as a result of a death. Thus, assets like IRAs, 401ks and life insurance policies, which do not have to go through probate, are still a part of your taxable estate.