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Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are powerful tools for funding your future.  Putting money into an IRA can be a great way to save for your retirement because it provides tax benefits in the present.  Unlike some retirement plans, IRAs can be set up by anyone; they do not have to be set up by your employer.

One of the major benefits of an IRA is that all or a portion of your contributions may be tax deductible and some taxpayers can claim a tax credit for their contributions. Additionally, any earnings on the money you’ve put in will be tax-deferred until you take the money out.  This benefit is particularly useful if you expect your annual income to be less during retirement years.

There are, of course, eligibility requirements for participating in an IRA. First, you must be under age 70 ½, and second, you may only contribute if you have taxable compensation for the year.  Each year the IRS assigns a maximum dollar amount that can be contributed; it is currently $5,000. Anyone under age 70 ½ can contribute the lesser of that $5,000 or their taxable compensation.  As an example, if you earn $6,000 you can only contribute $5,000; if you earn $3,500 you can only contribute $3,500.

It is this “taxable compensation” rule where we come to our first loophole only available to straight married couples, i.e. “spouses” as defined by DOMA.  If you are otherwise eligible to contribute to an IRA but are not working, and therefore have no taxable compensation, you can use your spouse’s income to qualify you for contributions. When one spouse earns $10,000 and the other earns $0, both can contribute up to $5,000.  Unless of course the non-working spouse is part of a same-sex couple, in which case no contribution is allowed.

This means that if a person has enough cash to contribute the maximum every year, but isn’t allowed to because they have no taxable compensation and aren’t considered a spouse, they miss out on up to $5,000 in tax deductions every year.  This essentially results in a gay person having to pay a potential $500 to $1,400 more in taxes, per year, than their straight counterpart.

Next let’s talk about what happens when you pull the money out of these plans.  Depending on what portions of your contributions were deductible, the distributions may be fully or partially taxable as ordinary income.  Furthermore, if you pull the money out before you’ve reached age 59 ½ a 10% penalty will be imposed. Luckily, for some, there are a few ways to get out of paying this.

The IRS has provided several exceptions that allow a taxpayer to avoid the 10% penalty.  While under the right conditions most of them are available to all taxpayers, there are also circumstances in which they are not.  There are three exceptions that apply to individuals who take a distribution to pay for certain expenses for themselves or their spouse[i].

  1. The money can be pulled to pay for health insurance premiums for an unemployed taxpayer or their spouse.
  2. The money can be pulled to pay for higher education expenses for the taxpayer or their spouse.
  3. The money can be pulled to pay for the purchase of a home if the taxpayer or their spouse qualifies as a first-time home buyer.

As an example of these rules in practice, let’s imagine a $10,000 distribution used to pay for higher education expenses.  One man can pull out $10,000 to pay for his wife’s education without penalty while another man who pulls out $10,000 for his husband’s education has to pay a $1,000 penalty.

Don’t get me wrong; the rules were created with good intention.  They are theoretically providing financial incentive for people to stay insured, go to college, and purchase homes.  The problem, albeit unintended, is that in this context, the exclusion of same-sex partners from the federal definition of spouse makes health insurance, education, and homes less accessible to the LGBT community.

Until rights and laws are applied equitably, we must work to understand the consequences of our legal inequality.  The benefits of marriage are more expansive than many of us realize.  I fear that as same-sex marriage begins to feel more attainable, those fighting for it will lose their sense of urgency.  Unfortunately, when it comes to financial rights and obligations, the inequality of today can have a tremendous impact on the future. Gaining parity ten years from now will not make up for present imbalance.


[i] In many cases the funds can also be pulled for children, grandchildren and certain other family members.

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