The policy change follows the Supreme Court decision in June that overturned the provision of the Defense of Marriage Act that barred the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages for purposes such as insurance benefits, immigration and tax filings.
The new approach "provides access to benefits, responsibilities and protections under federal tax law that all Americans deserve," Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew said in a statement. "This ruling also assures legally married same-sex couples that they can move freely throughout the country knowing that their federal filing status will not change."
For Dale Knight and his husband, the announcement has practical implications: The Ellicott City couple, married in January, has had to figure out how to split the mortgage deduction on their home — an issue that initially triggered an IRS audit.
The policy change also provides flexibility to allow them to join the other's health insurance plan without having to pay additional taxes.
"The other big thing is people should be able to feel like they can move — you don't have to only live in one of the states" that recognizes same-sex marriage, Knight said. "For some people, it's huge. It makes me happy for folks who are going to get some recognition even though their state may not be as far along as Maryland."
Maryland, 12 other states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples who were married in one of these jurisdictions or a foreign country but live in a state that does not recognize their marriage will be able to file federal taxes jointly.
Several Maryland lawmakers praised the announcement from the Obama administration.
"Federal recognition for all legally married same-sex couples for the purposes of tax filing has been long overdue," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, also a Democrat, called the policy change "an important step toward ensuring that all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation and where they reside, are entitled to equal protection under the law."
Thursday's decision represents a victory for same-sex couples who were left with unanswered questions after the Supreme Court decision. Chief among them was whether the federal government would recognize same-sex marriages even if a couple moved into a state that didn't.
Increasingly — and again in Thursday's announcement — the Obama administration has said it will honor those marriages, regardless of where a couple chooses to live.
"This is a really big deal for a lot of people who are, for instance, living in Virginia but who were married in D.C. or Maryland," said Carrie Evans, executive director of Equality Maryland.
The change does not extend to same-sex couples who are in registered domestic partnerships, civil unions or other formal relationships recognized under state laws.
The Treasury Department said the ruling will apply for all federal tax purposes, including income, gift and estate taxes, and all federal tax provisions where marriage is a factor, including filing status, dependency exemptions, employee benefits and individual retirement accounts.
Individuals who were in same-sex marriages also now have the option of filing amended tax returns for the past three years to reflect their married status.
Advocates of same-sex marriage immediately cheered the decision.
"This announcement makes today a day of celebration and relief for married same-sex couples all over America," Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, said in a statement. "At long last, the IRS will treat them as what they are: married."
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy organization GLAAD called the ruling a move "one step closer to 'liberty and justice for all.'"
"Equal federal tax protections will not only endow legally married same-sex couples with the respect and dignity they deserve," spokesman Wilson Cruz said in a statement, "but will also provide critical financial security for countless loving families."
But the new federal tax policy "certainly does not end the complexities that exist because we have a patchwork of marriage laws in this country," according to Brian Moulton, legal director of the LGBT rights organization Human Rights Campaign.
Same-sex couples living in a jurisdiction that does not recognize their marriage would still have to file any state taxes separately.
And the exclusion of domestic partnerships and civil unions from the change should signal to states that those arrangements, "while positive steps for protecting those families, are not equality," Moulton said. "We encourage states that can to finish that journey" to legalizing same-sex marriage.
Beneficiaries of a private Medicare plan will also be able to enter the same nursing home as their same-sex spouses, the Department of Health and Human Services announced.
The policy deals only with seniors whose same-sex spouse is receiving care in a nursing home under a private Medicare plan. Previously they may have faced the choice of receiving their own care in another facility away from their spouse or disenrolling from their plan to enter the same nursing home and paying more out of pocket, the agency said.
"Today's announcement is the first of many steps that we will be taking over the coming months to clarify the effects of the Supreme Court's decision and to ensure that gay and lesbian married couples are treated equally under the law," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said.
The Supreme Court's ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act has wide-reaching implications for federal benefits, but individual policies are being clarified by the agencies that administer them.
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security announced that U.S. citizens would be able to sponsor their foreign same-sex spouses for green cards. The Social Security Administration has begun offering partner benefits to same-sex couples, but only in those jurisdictions where their marriage is recognized.
Earlier this week, the Department of Veterans Affairs said that it might not be able to extend spousal support to same-sex couples because a portion of the U.S code governing veterans defines a spouse as person of the opposite sex.
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