Let’s face it – most of us don’t get married because of the legal recognition and benefits of the institution. We get married because we love each other and want to express that love. But like it or not, the federal government uses marital status to determine lots of benefits, rights and privileges that aren’t afforded to those who are prohibited from marrying the person they love. In fact, as of 2004, there were 1,138 such benefits, rights and privileges specifically defining or including marital status as a factor contained within the United States Code. Below is a listing of categories with some general information regarding what rights, benefits and privileges are provided by marriage. For more information read the full report from the GAO (from which the below summary was taken).
- Category 1—Social Security and Related Programs, Housing, and Food Stamps. This category includes the major federal health and welfare programs, particularly those considered entitlements, such as Social Security retirement and disability benefits, food stamps, welfare, and Medicare and Medicaid. Most of these provisions are found in Title 42 of the United States Code, Public Health and Welfare; food stamp legislation is in Title 7, Agriculture.
- Category 2—Veterans’ Benefits. Veterans’ benefits, which are codified in Title 38 of the United States Code, include pensions, indemnity compensation for service-connected deaths, medical care, nursing home care, right to burial in veterans’ cemeteries, educational assistance, and housing. Husbands or wives of veterans have many rights and privileges by virtue of the marital relationship.
- Category 3—Taxes. While the distinction between married and unmarried status is pervasive in federal tax law, terms such as “husband,” “wife,” or “married” are not defined. However, marital status figures in federal tax law in provisions as basic as those giving married taxpayers the option to file joint or separate income tax returns. It is also seen in the related provisions prescribing different tax consequences, depending on whether a taxpayer is married filing jointly, married filing separately, unmarried but the head of a household, or unmarried and not the head of a household.
- Category 4—Federal Civilian and Military Service Benefits. This category includes statutory provisions dealing with current and retired federal officers and employees, members of the Armed Forces, elected officials, and judges, in which marital status is a factor. Typically these provisions address the various health, leave, retirement, survivor, and insurance benefits provided by the United States to those in federal service and their families.
- Category 5—Employment Benefits and Related Statutory Provisions. Marital status comes into play in many different ways in federal laws relating to employment in the private sector. Most provisions appear in Title 29 of the United States Code, Labor. However, others are in Title 30, Mineral Lands and Mining; Title 33, Navigation and Navigable Waters; and Title 45, Railroads. This category includes laws that address the rights of employees under employer-sponsored employee benefit plans; that provide for continuation of employer-sponsored health benefits after events like the death or divorce of the employee; and that give employees the right to unpaid leave in order to care for a seriously ill spouse. In addition, Congress has extended special benefits in connection with certain occupations, like mining and public safety.
- Category 6—Immigration, Naturalization, and Aliens. This category includes federal statutory provisions governing the conditions under which noncitizens may enter and remain in the United States, be deported, or become citizens. Most are found in Title 8, Aliens and Nationality. The law gives special consideration to spouses of immigrant and nonimmigrant aliens in a wide variety of circumstances. Under immigration law, aliens may receive special status by virtue of their employment, and that treatment may extend to their spouses. Also, spouses of aliens granted asylum can be given the same status if they accompany or join their spouses.
- Category 7—Indians. The indigenous peoples of the United States have long had a special legal relationship with the federal government through treaties and laws that are classified to Title 25, Indians. Various laws set out the rights to tribal property of “white” men marrying “Indian” women, or of “Indian” women marrying “white” men. The law also outlines the descent and distribution rights for Indians’ property. In addition, there are laws pertaining to health care eligibility for Indians and spouses and reimbursement of travel expenses of spouses and candidates seeking positions in the Indian Health Service.
- Category 8—Trade, Commerce, and Intellectual Property. This category includes provisions concerning foreign or domestic business and commerce, in the following titles of the United States Code: Bankruptcy, Title 11; Banks and Banking, Title 12; Commerce and Trade, Title 15; Copyrights, Title 17; and Customs Duties, Title 19. This category also includes the National Housing Act (rights of mortgage borrowers); the Consumer Credit Protection Act (governs wage garnishment); and the Copyright Act (spousal copyright renewal and termination rights).
- Category 9—Financial Disclosure and Conflict Of Interest. Federal law imposes obligations on members of Congress, employees or officers of the federal government, and members of the boards of directors of some government-related or government chartered entities, to prevent actual or apparent conflicts of interest. These individuals are required to disclose publicly certain gifts, interests, and transactions. Many of these requirements, which are found in 16 different titles of the United States Code, apply also to the individual’s spouse.
- Category 10—Crimes and Family Violence. This category includes laws that implicate marriage in connection with criminal justice or family violence. The nature of these provisions varies greatly. Some deal with spouses as victims of crimes, others with spouses as perpetrators. These laws are found primarily in Title 18, Crimes and Criminal Procedure, but some statutory provisions, dealing with crime prevention and family violence, are in Title 42, Public Health and Welfare.
- Category 11—Loans, Guarantees, and Payments in Agriculture. Under many federal loan programs, a spouse’s income, business interests, or assets are taken into account for purposes of determining a person’s eligibility to participate in the program. In other instances, marital status is a factor in determining the amount of federal assistance to which a person is entitled or the repayment schedule. This category includes education loan programs, housing loan programs for veterans, and provisions governing agricultural price supports and loan programs that are affected by the spousal relationship.
- Category 12—Federal Natural Resources and Related Statutory Provision. Federal law gives special rights to spouses in connection with a variety of transactions involving federal lands and other federal property. These transactions include purchase and sale of land by the federal government and lease by the government of water and mineral rights.
- Category 13—Miscellaneous Statutory Provisions. This category comprises federal statutory provisions that do not fit readily in any of the other 12 categories. Federal provisions that prohibit discrimination on the basis of marital status are included in this category. This category also includes various patriotic societies chartered in federal law, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the Gold Star Wives of America.
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