Trusts and estates is one of the most traditional areas of the law. But the law regarding same-sex couples is changing fast, creating new structures that will give rise to new traditions.

Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down key elements of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will hasten the creation of those new structures. The Court held that that benefits granted to married couples in federal law must be granted to same-sex couples as well as traditional ones.

Massachusetts had already legalized same-sex marriage in 2004. But the Supreme Court’s ruling will enable same-sex couples in Massachusetts and across the nation to receive the same federal benefits that heterosexual couples do. 

As we discussed in our March 27 post, one of those benefits is tax exemption for surviving spouses from federal estate tax. In the case before the Supreme Court, U.S. v. Windsor, that exemption was worth $363,000, in addition to interest payments.

Estate tax exemptions are hardly the only federal benefit the Court’s ruling applies to, either. Federal law is contains hundreds of miscellaneous provisions that affect married couples.

For one thing, the ruling affects the ability of same-sex married couples to file join federal tax returns. Eligibility for this tax filing option could encourage some same-sex couples who have chosen not to marry to think about that decision.

The Supreme Court ruling will also affect Social Security benefits. The availability of survivor benefits under the Social Security system, in particular, is likely to be important to many same-sex couples.

We will write more about the likely effects of the Court’s ruling on same-sex couples in next week’s post.

Source: Bloomberg, “You’re a Gay Couple. Now What Do You Do?,” Ben Steverman, June 27, 2013