In 2007, plaintiff Edith “Edie” Windsor and Thea Spyer, residents of New York, married in Canada, after a forty year partnership. Spyer died in 2009, at which time New York legally recognized same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions. After her death, Windsor was required to pay more than $363,000 in federal estate taxes on her inheritance of her wife’s estate. If federal law accorded their marriage the same status as opposite-sex marriages recognized by their state, she would have qualified for an unlimited spousal deduction and paid no federal estate taxes.

The definition of marriage in Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – a federal law enacted on September 21, 1996 that restricts federal marriage benefits and inter-state marriage recognition to opposite-sex marriage in the United States – bars the Internal Revenue Service from recognizing Windsor’s marriage to Spyer. It also excludes legally married same-sex couples from over 1,100 federal laws and programs.

At issue in Windsor was whether section 3 of DOMA was unconstitutional, as it defined the term marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife”.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of DOMA. Describing the Act as a law that “writes inequality into the entire United States Code”, Justice Kennedy held for the majority that the “avowed purpose and practical effect” of DOMA are to “impose a disadvantage, a separate status, and so a stigma upon all who enter into same-sex marriages.” He concluded that “no legitimate purpose” overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to “protect in personhood and dignity”.

While the ruling striking down DOMA will not be effective until 25 days after the decision, and while it is recognized that large federal agencies will need time to incorporate same-sex couples into the spousal based system, Windsor ensures that all gay and lesbian married couples living in and married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage will be eligible for the same protections as opposite sex couples. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has already announced that same-sex couples will now be treated equally in the implementation of immigration laws, such that American partners will be able to sponsor their spouses for green cards.

For those living in states where same-sex marriage is not recognized – like North Carolina, where Amendment One of the NC Constitution restricts marriage to opposite-sex couples – their access to federal benefits is less clear. Some federal agencies (for example, the IRS and Social Security) look to the laws of the state where a couple resides to determine eligibility. Others, including immigration agencies, look to where the couple got married. Others look to the state with the “most significant interest” and many have no explicit rule at all.

It must be emphasized that Windsor did not create a constitutional right to gay marriage, require states to recognize the marriage of same-sex couples, or guarantee married couples living in states with marriage bans will receive all federal benefits based on marriage. However, the language of Justice Kennedy’s opinion may serve as the predicate for a marriage equality decision and so may be used as a basis to challenge the marriage bans extant in states like North Carolina.