A financial checklist for same-sex couples

Updated at: 07/05/2013 12:06 PM
By JOSEPH PISANI

(AP) NEW YORK - After celebrating the Supreme Court’s historic rulings on gay marriage last week, it’s time for same-sex married couples to sit down and go over their finances.

That’s because legally married same-sex couples are now entitled to the same federal benefits as their straight counterparts. Married gay couples can file joint federal income taxes for the first time and as spouses they won’t have to pay inheritance taxes when one partner dies.

But the decision still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. What do couples who move to states that don’t recognize gay marriage do? Can they file taxes jointly? (Thirteen states -- California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington -- and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage.) It could take a few months before there are clear answers, says Lisa Siegel, a senior wealth planner at Wells Fargo Private Bank. The Internal Revenue Service says that it is reviewing the Supreme Court decisions, and will offer "revised guidance in the near future."

But gay married couples can take action now by checking in with an adviser. They may not have all the answers yet, but they can set out a plan and begin to get familiar with your circumstances, says Siegel.

Here’s what gay married couples need to consider:

FIND GOOD HELP

Before you start making financial plans, make sure the lawyer or accountant you hire have experience working with same-sex couples. "Ask them, it’s very important," Siegel says. Because of the changing laws, finances can be more complex for gay couples. You’ll want to work someone who is already familiar with these issues.

Look for financial planners that have received the accredited domestic partnership advisor designation, or ADPA. That designation means that planner has been trained in domestic partnership issues. You can search for planners with an ADPA designation here: http://apne.ws/12HkbAo.

Lambda Legal, a legal nonprofit that fights for equal rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, can refer you to lawyers if you call their help desk. Go to www.lambdalegal.org/help for the phone numbers.

Pride Planners, an organization of financial professionals that helps gay and lesbian people, has a search function on its websites to find financial planners and accountants in most states around the country. Go to PridePlanners.com to conduct a search.

Local newspapers and other publications for the gay community can be a resource. Look for professionals who advertise in the paper, says Sharon Rich, a financial planner and founder of Pride Planners. Or you can ask friends for referrals.

CALL A TAX ACCOUNTANT

Married couples who filed separate federal income taxes in the past couple of years may be entitled to a refund, says Elda Di Re, a partner in Ernst & Young’s personal financial services group.

Ask a tax accountant to amend your past returns to determine if you would have gotten a refund if you had filed jointly. The IRS allows taxpayers to amend income taxes from the past three years.

Filing jointly is not always beneficial. Couples in which one person earns much more than the other could see a refund. But if both people have high incomes, they will probably pay more taxes than if they filed separately, says Mark Luscombe, an analyst at tax software and services company CCH.

It’s still unclear if the IRS will be giving out refunds, but experts expect the IRS to allow couples to amend their returns. So ask your accountant to run the numbers now, or amend the returns yourself on any tax software you may have used.

Widowed individuals who were in same-sex marriages and paid inheritance taxes may also be able to get that money back, says Luscombe.

REVIEW YOUR BENEFICIARY DESIGNATIONS

Check with your employer and see who the beneficiary is on your 401(k) plan. 401(k) accountholders should know that their spouse will automatically inherit the account, unless the spouse signs a waiver. So if couples want to make other arrangements, it needs to be outlined clearly in the beneficiary form and, if necessary, a waiver needs to be in place from the spouse, says Alexander Popovich, a wealth adviser at JP Morgan Private Bank.

You should also check to see if your spouse is a beneficiary on your life insurance and any other retirement accounts, such as an individual retirement account, says Alexander Popovich, a wealth adviser at JP Morgan Private Bank.

REEXAMINE REAL ESTATE DEEDS

Some married gay couples may have left spouses out of real estate deeds to avoid a gift tax, which is triggered when someone transfers money or property to another person, says Popovich. Same-sex married couples no longer have to pay gift taxes after the Supreme Court ruling. If you want to add a spouse to a real estate deed, speak to a lawyer who can make that change.

REVISIT YOUR WILL

Now that married gay spouses don’t have to pay federal estate taxes on anything they inherit after a spouse’s death, married couples should review their will to see if it makes sense in the current environment, says John Olivieri, a partner at law firm White & Case.

CHECK HEALTH BENEFITS

If your employer didn’t allow you to name your spouse on your health insurance, it should now, says Frank Fantozzi, a wealth planner and founder of Planned Financial Services. Couples should check to see whose health benefits are cheaper, or which employer offers more coverage and decide if they want to make a change.

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(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)