The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was enacted on September 21, 1996 and permitted the states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages legally entered into in other states. This means that under DOMA, if a same-sex couple who legally married in Hawaii moved to California, California would not be required to recognize the marriage and provide state benefits otherwise provided to married couples. In June 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States declared DOMA unconstitutional. In the aftermath of that landmark decision many same-sex couples are questioning whether they will receive any retroactive relief for the various benefits they were deprived of for nearly seventeen years.
New York legalized same-sex marriage in June 2011 and extended equal rights under estate tax law to legally married same-sex couples in July that same year. Estate tax rights were even extended to those married in other states before New York legalized same-sex marriage. However, federal laws prevented New York from implementing any retroactive application of the estate tax law. This problem came to light when Edie Windsor sued the IRS for denial of her right to inherit granted to other married couples. In 2009, Edie paid $363,000 in federal taxes upon the death of her spouse. As their marriage was not federally recognized under the tax code, she was unable to reap estate tax benefits available to married couples. The Supreme Court held Edie was entitled to a tax refund.
Similarly, since Massachusetts issued the first marriage license in the United States to a same-sex couple in 2004, wedded same-sex couples have been unable to file joint federal tax returns. Although a same-sex couple may be married under the laws of their home state, they were unable to claim any federal tax benefits. Now that such federal tax laws have been overturned, same-sex couples question whether they can retroactively realize federal tax benefits back to the date of their marriage.
In general, a tax refund can be claimed within three years of filing the incorrect tax return or within two years of the overpayment. Under this common rule, same-sex married couples may be able to collect overpaid taxes for the past three tax years. Some have rumored that the IRS will extend this typical statue of limitations to allow same-sex married couples to collect tax refunds even further back.