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updated: 7/3/2011 10:11 AM

New Yorkers ask how gay marriage will affect benefits

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  • Darren Major, left, and his husband Andrew Troup live in New York and were legally wed in Canada in 2008. As gay marriage becomes legal in New York, companies and individuals are wrestling with changes to their financial lives.

      Darren Major, left, and his husband Andrew Troup live in New York and were legally wed in Canada in 2008. As gay marriage becomes legal in New York, companies and individuals are wrestling with changes to their financial lives.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- As same-sex marriage becomes legal in New York -- a world financial capital that often sets the corporate tone for businesses everywhere, and a city with a large gay and lesbian community -- companies and individuals are wrestling with the changing complexities of their financial realities.

For straight couples, the choice has generally been to marry or not to marry, period. But conflicting state and federal marriage laws and questions about corporate benefits policies make financial planning decisions much less cut-and-dried for many gay couples.

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Jason Ganns, an accountant from Albany, figures getting married will save him $350 to $450 a year in state income taxes -- after a devil of a time reconciling those forms with his federal return, on which he won't be considered married.

New York City resident Andrew Troup and his husband have kept their health insurance policies separate because of tax complications and are now weighing whether merging them will make sense after marriage.

And if some couples have been waffling on tying the knot, they'll have to decide whether now is the time to take the plunge if their employers restrict domestic partner benefits to the lawfully hitched.

"There's just a lot of rumors going around," said Erica Freudenstein, a 46-year-old freelance photographer from New York City who plans to wed her longtime partner, television video editor Cybele Policastro. Freudenstein has been covered under Policastro's health insurance.

"She has to pay taxes on it for my health insurance, and now for New York state I think she won't," she said. "So it's a benefit. It's all about the benefits."

New York is home to an estimated 42,600 same-sex couples, many already considered married in Canada and other places that allow gay marriage but are less business-heavy, including Iowa, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.

The range of new benefits to married gay couples will affect everything from adoption to the settling of estates. But taxes and health care benefits are the most tangible and common issues.

It is estimated that thousands of gay people in New York are covered under their partner's employer-provided health plan. Married couples are not taxed on the value of an employer's contribution to cover their spouse, but it's been different for gay couples, even New Yorkers who got legally married elsewhere.

Troup got married in Canada in 2008. New York law has recognized marriages performed elsewhere since 2009, but they're still not sure how their status will change when the state on July 24 starts recognizing same-sex marriages performed within its borders.

They work at different software companies and are weighing whether to merge their health insurance policies.

"We're going to have to sort of re-evaluate and decide whether it's more cost-effective to be under one plan or not," he said.

While marriage will afford gay couples some state tax benefits, federal taxes are still off the table because of the 15-year-old Defense of Marriage Act, under which federal law defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

For Ganns and his husband-to-be, that means they can file jointly on their state returns but must file individually on the federal forms, which are typically used as the basis for state forms.

"Not only is that complicated, but our tax preparer will have to prepare a joint federal return to get certain numbers on that end up on that state joint return, and then throw federal return away because he can't file it anyway. ... It's going to cost most people more to get their taxes done," Ganns said.

A little more than a third of U.S. employers offer health coverage to their employees' same-sex partners, according to a report last week from the Society for Human Resource Management.

Some companies initially extended domestic partner benefits solely to same-sex couples to put them on equal footing with heterosexual employees who could get married.

With that inherent difference soon out the door, some couples in New York could face the choice of marrying or losing partner benefits if their companies restrict those to the legally married.

For instance, Elmira-based Corning Inc. extended benefits to same-sex domestic partners in 2002. But the specialty glass maker requires couples living in any state that permits same-sex marriages to be married to receive the benefit. IBM and defense contractor Raytheon Co. will require the same of New York employees.

It's merely a side effect of progress, said Louise Young, a Dallas-based senior software engineer for Raytheon who founded the company's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Allies Employee Resource Group.

"It's what we've been working for," she said.

Companies including New York-based IBM, Raytheon, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Babson College took similar action in Massachusetts when it became the first state to allow same-sex couples to wed in 2004. The rationale was to keep benefits consistent among all employees.

Retired IBM technical writer Suzanne McHugh, whose partner gets eye and dental care through her company health plan, expects to be affected. McHugh, who was on an IBM task force that helped usher in domestic partner benefits in 1996, is not troubled.

"Because of IBM's effort to be as fair as possible under the circumstances, I knew it would be an inevitability should it become legal in New York," she said. "So I'm not upset by it. I knew it was coming."

The two women, who live in Kerhonkson in the Hudson Valley, expect to get married in November, though not specifically for the health benefits. They also mentioned property tax benefits and said that after being together for 28 years, "it seems like the right thing to do."

Not all employers plan to force couples to marry to maintain benefits, among them General Electric Co. and Rochester-based Kodak.

Companies that are self-insured -- typically those with more than 500 employees -- don't have to follow state law, just federal law, which doesn't recognize gay marriage. But they may have to do some soul-searching even in states without gay marriage, said Shawn Nowicki, director of health policy for the Northeast Business Group on Health, which represents employers that offer health benefits in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

"The social movement will spur them to do some critical thinking about how to approach gay marriage," Nowicki said.

M. Diane Burton, an associate professor of human resource studies at Cornell University, also noted that what plays out in New York could affect other states.

"It is going to have a big impact because New York is a big state and it's going to hit a lot more employers," she said. "But many of those employers also have employees in other states. So what it does, it complicates things."

Troup and his husband, for instance, aren't sure if they need to get married twice.

"It's become a bit challenging, for sure," Troup said. "I think we're going to have to seek some legal counsel."

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