The IRS Wants to Make Liars Out of Gay Married Couples
For as long as it has existed, the Internal Revenue Service has warned Americans of the dire consequences of lying on their tax returns. Until now, that is. In another sign of how muddled and contradictory federal government policy is regarding gay citizens, the IRS is demanding that legally married gay couples—including thousands of new ones licensed in New York this summer—swear falsely on their tax returns that they are single. Problem is that the agency also says that making a false statement on a tax return is an act of perjury, subject to all the penalties thereof.
Of course, your federal government does not recognize state-approved same-sex marriages so—if it truly cared about honesty—it would have to amend the five status options on its tax returns to read: single, head of household, heterosexually married filing jointly, heterosexually married filing separately, or qualifying heterosexual widow(er) with dependent child.
Hmmm. That still leaves no truthful choice for most married gay people. So what’s a girl and a girl or a guy and a guy supposed to do? A growing number of couples are vowing to tell the truth even if the IRS challenges their returns and penalizes their veracity. Adding to the bizarreness of the situation, in some cases those truthful taxpayers will have to shell out more money filing as a married couple than they would have paid by denying the truth and filing singly.
For many of those facing the quandary, the dilemma has little to do with the bottom line of their Form 1040. It has more to do with the bottom line of their reality.
“It’s not about money; it’s about respect,” says Nadine Smith, executive director of the LGBT rights group Equality Florida, who legally married her partner Andrea in Vermont. “We are expecting a son. What will we teach him? Should we raise him to be honest and have integrity in his dealings with other people but show him that his mothers tell lies that make a mockery of our family when required to do so by the government?”
Smith says that “we got married on what seemed like the most beautiful day ever in Vermont, surrounded by 80 of our friends and family at the Burlington Quaker Meeting House. We committed, in front of our loved ones and duly authorized representatives of the State of Vermont, to love, cherish, and protect each other for the rest of our lives. It would be both dishonest and deeply humiliating to now disavow each other or our marriage and declare ourselves single on our tax form.”
The couple is among the frustrated folks who have launched the “Refuse to Lie” campaign, an online support and reference organization. Its website (refusetolie.org) includes a lengthy list of tips from tax analysts on how to file honestly and effectively, though there are numerous disclaimers. As Smith acknowledges, some of the ideas are “not without risk.” Gay couples need to have “a clear head about the decision they are making and [realize] that what could happen is unclear.”
Some of the strategies assume that the Defense of Marriage Act will be overturned in the not too distant future, either via the Supreme Court or Congress. Others attempt to finesse the situation by adhering to the law while stating the filers’ disagreement that they should be listed as single. One way to do that is to put an asterisk by the “single” box and then indicate at the bottom of the tax form that “I am single only under DOMA.”
Most methods are either complicated, uncertain or both. Perhaps the simplest is for a same-sex married couple simply to go ahead and file jointly because the return does not ask for each married partner’s gender. When processed by a computer, the return is likely to sail through with no questions asked. Computers are not concerned with whether the partners are named Jim and Mary, John and Henry, or Jill and Judy. As to what happens in case of an audit, it’s anyone’s guess.
Another possibility, according to the website, is to simultaneously file multiple returns: one jointly (which would show the tax due on the couple’s mutual return) and others as two single taxpayers (showing the tax due on each of those returns). The couple is encouraged to pay whatever is due on the single returns, which means the filers will not have underpaid (based on Uncle Sam’s viewpoint), and then ask the IRS which return it wants to accept. The IRS may accept the joint return based on marital status and issue a refund. Again, cautions the website, “there is no way to know what will happen if you are later audited.”
That appears to be the case with all but the simplest of written protests regarding the conundrum. When Nadine Smith called the IRS to inquire about how to address her marital status, she says she was told, “We’re not going to comment; we’re not going to classify.” Now there’s helpful advice from within the agency itself.
Probably the best advice for same-sex married couples who wish to file their taxes with integrity is to do your homework, consulting with a sympathetic tax professional and a knowledgeable attorney. Follow the lawsuits currently filed in various courts (the Refuse to Lie website lists some). You can be sure there will be a lot more legal filings to come until the day DOMA disappears and federal marriage equality becomes the rule for all lawfully wed couples.
If you’d like to learn more about Nadine Smith’s personal story in her own words, she has a fascinating video you can view on You Tube by searching for Nadine Smith.
While Nadine and Andrea are taking what can be described as a courageous stand by refusing to lie on their tax returns, another married lesbian couple half a world away is downright heroic for their gutsy acts this summer. I’m speaking of Hege Dalen and her spouse, Toril Hansen.
They were peaceably picnicking on the shore across from a Norwegian youth campground the day a rightwing zealot opened fire on hundreds of kids, slaughtering scores of them. According to a Scandinavian newspaper report, Dalen recounted, “We were eating. Then we heard shooting and then the awful screaming. We saw how the young people ran in panic into the lake.”
The couple immediately took action, pushing their small boat into Lake Tyrifjorden and reaching out to shocked and injured victims in the water. The women transported one boatful back to the safe side of the lake, then a second, a third and a fourth. Between runs they saw that bullets had hit the right side of their vessel but it didn’t deter them. Ultimately, they were able to rescue 40 young people from the assassin.
You may not have heard of Hege and Toril before because press coverage of their heroism has been minimal (outside of a few gay websites). Wouldn’t you think the world press would be looking for such a laudable angle for their coverage? Some observers are asking whether the fact that they are a married female couple may be the major reason their story has received such scant attention. Perhaps. But that’s why we still have the gay press—to let you know the good news about our worldwide LGBT family as well as the bad.
Bill Sievert’s comic mystery novel “Sawdust Confessions” is available at online booksellers; Email Bill Sievert