Despite the overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act provision barring same-sex married couples from federal benefits, each state will still be able to define marriage in its own jurisdiction.
That reality leaves an uncertain legal landscape in which couples may be eligible for some federal benefits — but not others.
Israeli Sharon Gershoni has struggled to maintain legal status in the United States for almost a decade because her wife, Sarra Lev, could not sponsor her for a visa.
Speaking just after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling was released on Wednesday, Gershoni and Lev said they’re overjoyed to be newly eligible for immigration relief.
“We kind of can’t believe it,” said Lev. “We’ve had all these phone calls from people crying. We’re just ecstatic.”
However, the couple, who live in Philadelphia, will not qualify for many other federal benefits.
“Each agency within the federal government defines marriage differently,” explains attorney Angela Giampolo, chair of the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia.
Some federal agencies base their recognition on the rules where marriages are officiated, but others rely on the rules of the state where a couple lives. Because Pennsylvania doesn’t recognize same-sex unions, neither will the IRS or the Social Security Administration. They won’t extend benefits to Pennsylvania residents.
“People have to look at what rights they’re looking to avail themselves to,” said Giampolo. “Then look at that agency how they define marriage. Then, that will determine whether or not you here in Pennsylvania have access to that privilege or benefit.”
If that sounds like a legal mess to you, you’re not alone. Legal experts predict this patchwork of regulations will be the subject of the next round of same-sex marriage litigation.