Social Security Issues for Self-Employed Registered Domestic Partners in Washington

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The absence of federal marriage equality has a powerful impact on your social security. I briefly touched on this in a previous post, Washington to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage?. What I discussed there was in the context of survivor benefits which is unfortunately only one of the social security issues that “unmarried” couples face.

Let’s start with how you accumulate the benefits in the first place.  When you are an employee, your employer withholds social security taxes from your wages at the rate of 6.2%. Additionally, your employer makes a match of this withholding at their own expense. The amounts are reflected on your W2 and from here go toward your social security credits; in other words, this is where your social security benefits come from. These amounts, from wages, are not affected by the income-splitting rules for RDP taxpayers. Even though you will be combining and splitting your W2 wages for income tax purposes, the social security credits are still calculated from your employment records.

This is not the same for self-employed people. When you are self-employed, you report and pay your own social security tax, and since you employ yourself, you also have to pay the match. This means you are paying taxes on your earnings at 12.4% instead of 6.2%, a part of what is collectively known as self-employment tax. The tax is calculated on your return as a percentage of your net self-employment income (net profit). On a married filing joint return, self-employment income is linked to a social security number so that only the earner is credited for the social security. When spouses file separately in community property states, even though the self-employment income is split, the self-employment tax is only imposed upon the earner or owner of the business.

The same is not true for RDPs. The special rule allowing the self-employment income earner to receive full credit for the social security, so as to be comparable to how it works with wages, only applies to spouses.  Again, because of semantics, these protections do not extend to RDPs. Many tax preparers, including me, feel that the IRS’s position on this issue is incorrect.

There are consequences to this treatment of self-employment tax. Firstly, if both partners are working, it means that one partner is getting 100% credit for the social security attributable to their own wages and 50% of the social security attributable to their partner’s self-employment income. The self-employed partner is only getting 50% of their self-employment credits and 0% of their partner’s wage credits.  For many, this is a problem, but for some it could be a benefit.

If one partner is self-employed and the other is not working at all, this treatment allows the non-working partner to accumulate social security credits. This can be extremely important for some since, unlike spouses, a surviving partner is not eligible to receive the deceased partner’s unused benefits. It basically provides a loophole to funnel social security benefits to a non-working partner.

To me though, this potential benefit does not outweigh the potential drawbacks. As is the case with many problems arising from unequal federal rights, there is an issue of double taxation. Let me explain.  There is a wage base for social security tax. This means that once you exceed a certain wage level, the earnings above that level are no longer subject to social security tax. In 2012, that base is $110,100 and it applies to both wages and self-employment income. So, if a single or married person makes $150,000, only the first $110,100 is subject to the social security tax. What if you are an RDP in a community property state with $150,000 in self-employment income? The full $150,000 is taxable.   

An example: One partner has $200,000 in self-employment income. The rules require this to be split so that each partner reports, and is taxed on, $100,000. Both partner’s shares are now, in their entirety, subject to social security tax since the reportable amounts are both beneath the wage base. This means that social security tax is imposed on the whole $200,000 resulting in $11,148 more tax than a married or single person would have to pay. 

While it’s true that most RDP taxpayers are not bringing home over $110,100 in self-employment income, I find it extremely alarming that this sort of disparity in taxation is built into our current tax system. Of course, there are ways to get around this taxation issue. However, to do so would require consulting a financial or legal professional; just another example of the unnecessary burden the income splitting rules put on RDP taxpayers.

Washington to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage?

The State of Washington may be on its way to becoming the seventh state, in addition to Washington D.C, to legalize same-sex marriage.  In 2007 Washington legalized domestic partnerships, then, in 2009 it expanded the rights of registered domestic partners to include “everything but marriage” as the passing bill became known.  Now, in 2012, Governor Christine Gregoire has announced her support for legal same-sex marriage in Washington State.

Shortly after Gregoire’s announcement, House Bill 2516 and Senate Bill 6239 were introduced by Representative Jamie Pederson and Senator Ed Murray respectively. The legislation would allow for same-sex couples to apply for and receive marriage licenses in Washington. Also in the bills is an amendment providing religious officials an exemption from performing services for such marriages.  Interestingly, this amendment changes the language from:  “minister or priest of any religious denomination” to “minister or a priest, imam, rabbi, or similar official of any church or religious organization.” Perhaps my favorite part of the bill though is an added section that includes the term “gender neutral:”

Where necessary to implement the rights and responsibilities of spouses under the law, gender specific terms such as husband and wife used in any statute, rule or other law must be construed to be gender neutral and applicable to spouses of the same sex.”

Since January 23rd, when Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, the deciding vote, announced her support, the bills have been expected to pass both the House and the Senate.  Upon passage, opponents will begin soliciting signatures in an attempt to get a challenging referendum on the ballot for public vote.  To do so, they need only collect 120,577 signatures by July 6th.

This is reminiscent of what took place in 2009 when the “everything but marriage” bill was passed. Opponents collected the required number of signatures and placed Referendum 71 on the ballot. I recall my time working as co-coordinator of the Olympia chapter Approve Referendum 71 campaign and fear that some of the same confusion will occur.  Because of the wording of the referendum, the beginning of the campaign was dedicated almost entirely to explaining that voting in support of the referendum actually meant voting in support of the original “everything but marriage” bill.  The number of voters unaware that voting against the referendum, brought by opponents, was in fact siding with them was astonishing.

Last night, just as I sat down to write about this, I received a phone call from an Equal Rights Washington phone bank volunteer. His script began by notifying me that I had donated during the Referendum 71 campaign and that they were now looking for support for ERW’s campaign for marriage equality.  I soon found myself in a long and emotional conversation as I jabbered on about how I was, at the very moment, writing a blog about the bills and, also, about the tax work I now do with registered domestic partners. He told me of his partner of 14 years who passed 22 months ago.  He explained that he did not understand, until his partner’s death, the breadth of the impact of not having the very rights he was fighting for.  

His partner was a dedicated worker who refused to begin drawing social security and preferred instead to continue working. By the time he passed he had accumulated significant social security benefits. Because their relationship is not federally recognized, the surviving partner is ineligible for the same social security survivor benefits afforded spouses.  As a result of losing half of his household income, and not being eligible for the same federal benefits married couples receive, this ERW volunteer will likely lose his home.  It is these nuances of the law that have a tangible and often life-changing impact on the lives of people that do not have the right to marry.  Unfortunately, legalization of same-sex marriage in Washington State will have no immediate effect on such federal rights. We can only hope that with each state that passes similar legislation we will be one step closer to federal marriage equality.

If you do plan to marry in the State of Washington, there are some things to consider. For those who are already in a registered domestic partnership, your registration will not immediately and automatically turn into a marriage. Registered domestic partners will need to apply for a separate marriage license.  Once married, the partnership will be automatically dissolved. This will remain true until June 30th 2014 at which time, if you are in a registered domestic partnership and have not yet applied for a marriage license, your partnership will automatically be deemed a marriage. For legal purposes, the date of marriage will become the date of your domestic partnership registration.

It’s Tax Time: What you Need to Know if you are a Registered Domestic Partner in the State of Washington

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In 2010, the IRS made drastic changes to the filing requirements for Registered Domestic Partners (RDPs) in Washington State.  Didn’t know about these changes? You are not alone.  It was a scramble for many in 2011. Some learned of the changes just before the filing deadline, while others remained unaware until after they had filed their returns.  

During the 2010 tax year, the IRS began to acknowledge the community property rights granted to Washington RDPs under state law.  At first, a federal agency recognizing same-sex relationships sounded exciting.  It soon became clear however that the IRS is certainly not recognizing these relationships.  Rather, they are simply allocating and taxing income according to who Washington says it belongs to.  This is not to say that the new rules are a bad thing.  While they still fail to provide the same tax protections afforded spouses, the new rules are beneficial to many RDP taxpayers. The trouble is that they are confusing and burdensome to follow.

For spouses, who are able to file jointly, community property does not pose a problem.  Everything is combined onto one return so it doesn’t matter whose is whose.  For RDPs, who cannot file jointly, recognition of community property is a big problem.  In a community property state, the old adage “what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine” is true, and it applies to income.  The question then becomes how to report this income for tax purposes.

Let’s start from the beginning.  This is not the first time that taxpayers have been faced with this problem.  The community property concept dates back to early Germanic tribes, long before the advent of joint tax returns. Community tax reporting issues first arose in the 1930s when a man by the name of Seaborn, coincidentally from Washington, reported only half of his wages to the IRS.  Seaborn reasoned, and rightly so, that he should only have to pay tax on half of the income since, according to state law, only half of it was his. The IRS disagreed and assessed interest and penalties on his return. A series of legal battles then began and the US Supreme Court eventually ruled in Seaborn’s favor.  As a result, Congress amended the tax code and created joint tax returns.

Once spouses were able to combine income onto one return, the issue was largely forgotten. Then, seventy five years later, California became the first state to grant community property rights to same-sex couples and a similar tax reporting problem arose. The first arguments for RDP community property recognition began in 2005. When the IRS responded, one year later in 2006, they said that the precedence created by the Seaborn case only applied to spouses and that RDPs are not spouses as defined by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  After several court cases in the state of California, culminating in May of 2010, the IRS finally changed its position. Now, same-sex spouses in California, and by default RDPs in Washington and Nevada, are required to file according to community property rules.

Unfortunately, there is very little IRS instruction on how to follow these rules.  To date, the only guidance is an FAQ page and a publication that was originally written for spouses who are married filing separately. The IRS merely inserted “Or RDP/Same Sex Spouse in California” throughout the text of the publication and, thanks to DOMA, much of it is inapplicable as it is filled with explanations of rules that only apply to spouses.

Luckily, once you figure out how to file the return, and what numbers to put on it, the end result may be a larger refund. Those who benefit most are couples in which one partner is a significantly higher earner than the other, or those in which one partner does not work at all. In these situations, when the incomes are combined and split, because most income is community income, the income is taxed at a lower rate. For example, if one partner makes $100,000 and the other $0, and it is all community income, each partner will report $50,000. The tax rate is lower at $50,000 than it is at $100,000. This means that the entire $100,000 is taxed at a lower rate, resulting in less tax owed. In the example above, even a 2% drop in tax rate could mean a $2,000 savings.

Additionally, the IRS is allowing, but not requiring, taxpayers to amend prior year returns in order to apply the rules retroactively.  You may want to consider amending your 2009 and 2010 returns. If the new rules would have resulted in a larger refund in one of these years, amending may get you a check from the IRS, with interest.

The new rules can be complex and there are many issues I have neglected to go into here. I’ll be posting more entries discussing these issues in more detail, along with various methods of handling them. Until then, take solace in the confusion. Many believe that these uncertainties will lead to a new federal filing status option for Registered Domestic Partners. As unsatisfying and incomplete as the new rules are, they just may be a stepping stone to marriage equality.

Welcome!

Welcome to my blog! I decided to start this blog so I can share my knowledge and  ideas about taxes, vent my furstration with inequities, and spread my hope for the success of pending legislation. The forums from which I currently express myself, the workplace and social networks, feel limited by either professional restrictions or by fear that I am engaging in incessant badgering.

I am hoping to accomplish a couple of things by creating this blog. First and foremost, I aspire to increase awareness of the issues that the Defense of Marriage Act creates for couples that are deemed to be unmarried by the federal government. Most notably, I seek to reveal some of the far-reaching, and often unintended, tax consequences that arise as a result of the ever-controversial federal definition of the word “spouse.”

Secondly, I want to celebrate and publicize the heightened LGBT equality efforts occurring throughout the country.  We are experiencing a time of increasing support, acceptance and tolerance in both a social and legislative context.

As we navigate through bureaucratic discrimination and join efforts towards progress with great fervor, it is critical that we educate ourselves on how we can best live within a system that does not grant us equal rights and protections and how we can best create a climate in which we will no longer have to.