Across Louisiana Saturday, local and state officials will begin scrambling to comply with Friday’s sweeping Supreme Court ruling granting same-sex couples the right to marry. With this decision, many of the legal obstacles that have long prevented gays and lesbians from being treated as equal partners under the law will need to be changed. In one fell swoop, the court rendered many of the ways our state handles such matters as adoption, parenting and even the filing of income taxes as ineffective at best and unconstitutional at worst.
Perhaps one of the most significant questions raised by the court’s call for marriage equality is its effect on nontraditional family formation in Louisiana. Gay couples have long been prevented from adopting, not because of an express prohibition on adoption by gay people but because only married people jointly, or a single person individually, may adopt a child in this state. Both unmarried same-sex couples and unmarried heterosexual couples alike have found themselves unable to participate together in the adoption of a child. Often, one member of the couple will adopt as a single individual. Both members of the couple then participate in raising the child, but the non-adopting “second parent” has absolutely no legal connection, rights or duties, with respect to the child. This long-standing rule has proven poor for children, as they are deprived of a second parent from whom to receive financial support and inheritance, not to mention all of the non-financial duties associated with legal parentage.
Those who have opposed gay marriage have tried to rally others to their cause by arguing that without a strong united front, the door to adoption by gay couples will inevitably be swung wide open. Indeed, that door has now opened. Although new judicial decisions, and perhaps even legislation, will be required to fully effectuate the change, Louisiana now has no legal basis on which to deny gay couples the right to adopt children, in the wake of the court’s ruling. Adoption by same-sex couples has made its way to Louisiana.
And even family formation by unmarried heterosexual couples may be affected by the decision. When a single parent adopts a child, Louisiana courts have refused to recognize any relationship with the “second parent,” for fear that it would necessitate allowing adoption by same-sex couples. Now that stopping adoptions by gay couples is no longer a possibility, Louisiana could, and should, move toward more freely accepting second parent adoptions, and recognizing legal rights and duties of the many players involved in a child’s life. Whether it will choose to do so remains to be seen.
Another area worthy of attention deals with income taxes. In the wake of the Windsor and Perry decisions in 2013, the IRS announced that same-sex spouses should file their taxes as married persons, regardless of whether their state of residence allowed or recognized such unions. Louisiana’s Department of Revenue followed up shortly thereafter by announcing that, despite the IRS ruling, married gay couples must still submit their state income taxes as single filers. This is because Louisiana law does not recognize same-sex marriage in any way. Further, because Louisiana’s individual income tax liability is based on information used on the taxpayer’s federal income tax return, Louisiana’s same-sex spouses have been required to cobble together a bogus single-filer federal return and then use those numbers to calculate their individual Louisiana income tax liability. The complexity of this dubious process has been problematic for individuals and businesses alike. For example, it has caused uncertainty regarding how much an employer should withhold in state income taxes for their employees in relation to the granting of same-sex spousal benefits.
Under yesterday’s decision, however, filing state income taxes should become much easier and more straightforward for gay spouses. Same-sex married couples will now presumably file their state income tax returns using the same information contained on their federal income tax submissions — either married filing jointly or married filing single — and the need to concoct a separate dummy return will be dispensed with altogether.
Compliance with Friday’s Supreme Court ruling promises to be the beginning of a groundswell of new legal rules and interpretations in many areas of the law. And while the decision leaves many unanswered questions about the many ways our state laws have been designed to deny equal rights for same-sex couples and how those laws will be rectified to comply with the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, the winds of change have swept through Louisiana, and marriage equality has finally arrived.
Andrea Carroll is the Donna W. Lee professor of family law and the C.E. Laborde Jr. professor of law at the LSU Law School and serves as the reporter of the Marriage and Persons Committee of the Louisiana State Law Institute. Christopher K. Odinet is an assistant professor of property and commercial law at the Southern University Law Center and a real estate law fellow with the American Bar Association.