And you thought your wedding was tricky to plan.
Imagine saying “I do” in front of 28.5 million of your closest friends… That’s exactly what happened last night during the 56th Grammy Awards. With Macklemore and Ryan Lewis singing their hit song “Same Love” (it was also nominated for Song of the Year but lost to Daft Punk’s campy and wildly successful “Get Lucky”) on stage, 33 couples were married – during the ceremony – by actress/rapper/producer and Cover Girl Queen Latifah. As if that wasn’t enough of a moment, Madonna showed up on stage to sing them off with her 1986 single “Open Your Heart.”
It was a wedding day to remember. But was it legit?
Latifah is a lot of things but I didn’t know that she was eligible to officiate at weddings. It turns out, she’s not – well, not long term. Marrying couples at the Grammys was a temporary gig. She’s not an ordained minister. She was deputized as a commissioner by the State of California just for the ceremony, joking later that you could “[c]all me Queen Commish.”
A commissioner is one of a number of persons authorized under the California Family Code (at section 400) to solemnize a wedding. According to John Harding, a California family law trial lawyer and divorce mediator at Harding & Associates Family Law, a valid marriage requires the consent of the parties, issuance of a license, solemnization, and authentication.
“Consent,” Harding says, “is the capacity to understand the entry into an ordinary civil contract, and the simultaneous, voluntary entry into that contract while “[s]olemnization is the performance of the marriage ceremony by an official authorized to do so.” Finally, Harding explained that a marriage license must be issued by the county clerk and signed – as part of the authentication process – by the officiant.
All of the steps matter. Forgetting a piece – like, say, getting the marriage license, means that the marriage isn’t valid. But if you get it all right, you’re married according to the state of California.
And that’s good enough for the Internal Revenue Service.
You see, for federal tax purposes, whether you’re married or single is determined by state law. That means that a valid marriage under the laws of your state will be respected by the federal government (even if the rest of the country is still reeling a bit that you got married on the Grammys).
You cannot opt to treat yourself as married if you’re not – no matter which state you live in. Notably, if your state doesn’t recognize common law marriage, you may not hold yourself out as legally married (currently, only nine states – Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Iowa, Montana, Utah and Texas – and the District of Columbia, permit common law marriage though some states recognize common law marriages entered into before the laws changed). This also means that domestic partnerships, long-term engagements, civil unions and other arrangements don’t entitle you to file as married even if you feel married.
The opposite is also true. You can’t opt to file as single if you’re still legally married even you feel unmarried (or you really, really wish you were). If you want to file a separate return when you’re still married, the appropriate marital status is usually Married Filing Separate (in some cases, Head of Household or Qualifying Widower may apply). That requires a little bit of coordination: if you elect to file as Married Filing Separate, both spouses must make the same election to itemize deductions or claim the standard deduction.
There used to be an exception to the state recognition rule: same sex marriages. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was signed into law in 1996 and made it clear that even if a same sex marriage was valid under state law, it would not be recognized for federal purposes. That meant that it used to be impossible for a same sex couple to file as married for federal purposes. But that was before Windsor.
On June 26, 2013, in the now landmark Windsor opinion, the Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional, confirming that the federal government did not have the right to regulate the definition of marriage. On August 29, 2013, the IRS took it one step further, ruling that all same-sex married couples will be treated as married for federal purposes regardless of whether the couple lives in a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage or a jurisdiction that does not recognize same-sex marriage. But note the word “married” because it’s important. The ruling did not make it the law that all same-sex couples would be treated as married for federal purposes any more than heterosexual couples are treated as married for federal purposes – unless, of course, you put a ring on it.
In other words, no matter who you are: if you’re married, you’re married for federal tax purposes.
So those 33 couples who were married during the Grammys? They were a mix of gay and straight, old and young. That doesn’t matter. They’re all married (assuming Queen Latifah gets those certificates signed).
But pay attention to the date. For purposes of timing, marital status is determined as of the last day of the tax year. That means December 31. I don’t care how long you feel like you’ve been married: if you get married at any time during the year – even if it’s on December 31 – you’re married for the whole tax year so far as the IRS is concerned. Similarly, if you get divorced in July, you’re no longer married for the tax year. The one exception is for widows and widowers: the IRS still allows you to file as married (this is typically favorable for most taxpayers).
It doesn’t matter what your marital status is when you actually sign your tax return. Even though tax season opens in three days, those 33 couples will be filing separate returns while they file their 2013 tax returns in 2014 – again, that key date is December 31, 2013. It doesn’t matter what happened on January 26, 2014 – well, at least not for 2013 tax purposes. But for tax year 2014 (filed in 2015), those couples, assuming they stay together (and we hope that they do), will file as married.
We’re not all going to get married on a Grammy stage. But it doesn’t matter if you get married in front of 28 million people or 28. In a little white church or in Los Angeles’ Staples Center. By Queen Latifah or your justice of the peace. To a backdrop of Madonna or a church choir. As far as the IRS is concerned: married is married.
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Source: Forbes Business