What same-sex couples must now know about their finances

Last week's Supreme Court ruling providing nationwide legal recognition of same-sex marriage has far-reaching implications. The social and emotional benefits of living in a legally recognized union are widely known and have been discussed.

But what does legal marriage mean for your finances when you're a same-sex couple? How will this decision impact your immediate and long-term finances?

Same sex marriage
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The ruling last Friday is in many ways an extension of another Supreme Court decision two years ago that found Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. That opened the way for federal government recognition of same-sex marriages, which had significant financial implications.

However, the DOMA ruling had limited application in states where same-sex marriage was not legally recognized. That changed last week, and now state borders will no longer affect the legality of same-sex marriages.

Key issues to consider

In light of the court's ruling last week, here are some of the key financial issues that same-sex couples should be taking into consideration.

Income taxes. Under the DOMA ruling, married couples—regardless of their state of residence—generally filed their federal tax returns with the "married, filing jointly" status. State laws, however, weren't bound by that, but they will be now. It will simplify tax filing in states that previously didn't recognize same-sex marriages.

"Now that same-sex couples can be legally wed in all states, partners have a clear ability to take advantage of spousal benefits such as employer-sponsored health-care coverage."

This may change the amount of taxes you owe this year, so it is worth checking with a tax advisor about the possible impact on your own tax liability. Those who are legally married on the last day of tax year 2015 generally must use the "married" status when the time comes to file their 2015 tax return.

Employee benefits. Now that same-sex couples can be legally wed in all states, partners have a clear ability to take advantage of spousal benefits, such as employer-sponsored health-care coverage and access to lower-cost life insurance sponsored by an employer.

This is a major step up from previous circumstances, where some employers provided domestic partner benefits, because that benefit was taxed as income to the employee.

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Traditional health-care coverage for spouses that now applies to all married couples is a tax-free benefit. In addition, if an employee leaves work to care for an ailing spouse under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), that benefit extends to same-sex married couples.

The change in status has an impact on retirement plans as well. If an individual names somebody other than his or her spouse as a beneficiary of retirement-plan assets, the spouse must consent in writing to that designation. This now applies nationwide to same-sex married couples. In general, these couples will now be eligible to collect survivor benefits from both defined benefit and defined contribution plans through one spouse's workplace.

Social Security benefits. The court's ruling makes clear that same-sex married couples everywhere now can approach their Social Security benefits in the same way as all other married couples. This means a spouse without earned income can qualify to claim spousal benefits based on earnings of a working spouse. It also means that when one spouse dies, the other can claim survivor benefits.

Estate planning. With legal recognition of their married status under the prior DOMA ruling, same-sex spouses have the ability to pass on property to one another during their lives without incurring gift taxes. This can result in significant savings.

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Also, as a married couple, spouses can effectively combine their annual gift-tax exclusions and give up to $28,000 (in 2015) to each person free of tax consequences (using each spouse's $14,000 annual gift-tax exclusion). This is a major advantage for a couple where one spouse is the primary income earner or has significant assets in his or her name.

The change in status also means that the surviving spouse qualifies for the unlimited marital deduction when inheriting the estate of the deceased spouse.

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It also gives same-sex couples the benefit of the portability provision of the federal estate-tax law. In effect, that means the unused portion of one spouse's estate-tax exclusion amount (up to $5.43 million in 2015) can be transferred to the surviving spouse, potentially doubling the value of that exclusion to $10.86 million in 2015.

Read MoreFirst comes love, then taxes

Financial-planning checklist

If the recognition of your marriage status has changed as a result of the Supreme Court's ruling or it opens the door to consider marriage, a little planning is in order. Here are some of the steps you should take now:

  • Review how marriage recognition will affect taxes, benefits and other aspects of your financial life.
  • Check beneficiary designations on workplace retirement plans, individual retirement accounts, insurance policies and bank accounts to make sure they are current.
  • Update health-care directives and power-of-attorney forms, if needed.
  • Contact your financial advisor to consider additional steps that may be needed to account for a change in your marital status.

—By Michael Sangirardi, a certified financial planner and financial advisor at Bryant Park Wealth Advisors.