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How the DOMA Supreme Court Ruling Helps Spouses of 9/11 Victims

The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. As a result, same-sex partners who were legally married in their home state were nonetheless denied federal benefits.

In 2002, Kenneth R. Feinberg, the special master of the initial September 11 Victims Compensation Fund (VCF), announced that gay and lesbian domestic partners would be eligible for compensation for loss of a partner — as long as the victim’s family agreed. In some cases, the victim’s family did not accept their loved one’s partner or spouse, resulting in the unfair circumstance that eligibility was tied to the feelings of the victim’s family members.

In addition, the Victims Compensation Fund relies on the federal income tax return to determine who is married. Under DOMA, same-sex married couples were required to file separately as single people because, according to the U.S. government, they were not legally married.

The Supreme Court of the United States struck down DOMA in its landmark June 2013 case United States v. Windsor. SCOTUS ruled that treating legal marriages differently was unconstitutional — welcome news for same-sex partners across the country who had suffered discrimination throughout the course of their relationships. The SCOTUS decision also supported a more equitable process for individuals who lost their spouses at the World Trade Center, Pentagon or the United Airline crash in Shanksville.

The U.S. Supreme Court DOMA ruling helped same-sex partners pursue claims under the VCF by granting the following rights:

  • Recognition of marital relationship — The Fund recognizes the same-sex relationship, even though the partners could not identify themselves as married on their tax returns prior to June 2013.
  • Recognition of parenting relationship — The law recognizes a same-sex spouse’s parenting relationship and, thus, her or his child is entitled to compensation as a dependent.
  • Entitlement to Victims Compensation Fund — The victim’s spouse is entitled to compensation, just as a heterosexual spouse would be, regardless of the position of the victim’s family.

Barasch McGarry Salzman & Penson advocates for fair treatment of 9/11 victims and their families.

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