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Tue April 12, 2011
Around the Nation

IRS Entangled In Gay Marriage Debate

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some same-sex married couples are planning a protest this tax day. They object to the federal law requiring them to check the single box on their federal tax returns. Same-sex married couples file jointly on their state tax returns, but they're still regarded as single by the federal government, based on the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In defiance of that law - known as DOMA - some couples are checking the married box on their federal returns. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: You don't have to read the small print about the pains and penalties of perjury to know it's not a good idea to lie to the IRS. And yet, tens of thousands of same-sex couples who are legally married - in Massachusetts, Iowa or New Hampshire, for example - sign their federal tax returns saying they're single because legally, they have to.

Ms. NADINE SMITH: We are caught between the truth and the law, and it's an impossible situation.

SMITH: Nadine Smith got married three years ago in California and has played along, as she says, ever since - checking single on her federal tax return. But this year, she says, she just couldn't.

Ms. SMITH: We are tired of quietly being complicit in a law that tells us we must disavow our spouses, we must erase our families - or face penalties.

SMITH: Earlier this month, Smith started a website for what she's calling the Refuse To Lie campaign. In many cases, same-sex couples filing jointly would owe less. But some who are choosing to file as married are willingly paying more.

Ms. KATE KENDELL (Executive Director, National Center for Lesbian Rights): My tax accountant thought I was crazy. And there's no doubt, it was sticker shock. And it is going to be a burden.

SMITH: Kate Kendell, head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, says she and her wife are giving up their summer vacation to cover the extra $5,000 they'll pay to file jointly.

Ms. KENDELL: You know, I think there's a moment where - you know - you just have to say enough is enough, and I am going to stand up for my family and my relationship and say, this is who we are.

Ms. KAREN STOGDILL (Tax consultant): I think it's a great statement to make. I'm just not sure that the proper way to make it is to file a married-filing-joint federal income tax return.

SMITH: Tax consultant Karen Stogdill says couples who do that risk serious penalties, and still won't get any benefits of marriage from the federal government like sharing a spouse's Social Security or retirement. To avoid penalties, she advises couples to file as singles, and then file an amended return as married. Or, they can file two returns.

Either way, Stogdill says, it all amounts to an unfair burden on same-sex couples trying to figure out what to do.

Ms. STOGDILL: They call the IRS, and they talk to people at the IRS phone lines, and they can't even tell you. And so it's very sad that people can't even get proper help - even from the governmental agencies - to figure it out.

SMITH: The IRS declined to comment for this report. But even the agency's own ombudsman has called the situation quote, ridiculously complex.

The IRS has responded by saying DOMA leaves the agency no choice but to require same-sex couples to file as singles. But officials also say the IRS isn't going to spend a lot of time working on new guidelines that might help clarify things since one federal court has already ruled DOMA unconstitutional, and the future of the law is anything but certain.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.