Will my same-sex marriage in Canada be recognized in the United States?

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Question:

In 2006, I married my same-sex partner in Canada, where we were living at the time. We are contemplating a move to the United States. Will our marriage be recognized there?

Answer:

Canada legalized marriage between same-sex couples in 2005. Since then, same-sex partners all over the world can travel to Canada, obtain a marriage license, and in a few short days be lawfully wed. But if you move to the United States (U.S.), whether your Canadian marriage will be recognized will depend on where you live.

As of July 2013, if you move to California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont or Washington, your same-sex marriage will be recognized in that state - same-sex marriage is now legal in all of these jurisdictions.

And because the Supreme Court struck the federal Defense of Marriage Act's (DOMA) definition of marriage (for federal purposes) as a union between a man and a woman, legally married same-sex couples now (for the most part) qualify for federal benefits, including immigration status and tax benefits - regardless of where they live. 

But some federal agencies, such as the Social Security Administration, only recognize marriages that are valid in the couple's state of domicile (where the couple lives) for the purposes of granting federal benefits. If you're in a valid same-sex marriage, but you live in a non-recognition state, you aren't eligible for Social Security benefits on your spouse's work record.

If you move to one of the 36 or so states that have a state "defense of marriage" statute (which expressly prohibits the government from recognizing same-sex marriage), your new resident state will not recognize your marriage. For all practical purposes, the state will treat you and your partner as if you were single.

To find out if your state has a defense of marriage act or recognizes same-sex marriage, visit Lambda Legal's website at www.lambdalegal.org and click "In Your State."

If you move to one of the states that does not allow same-sex couples to marry but does not have a defense of marriage statute, whether your marriage will be recognized is uncertain. To keep abreast of the frequently changing law in this area, visit the Human Rights Campaign website at www.hrc.org.

To Learn More

For a comprehensive guide to same-sex relationship laws in the U.S., see Making It Legal: A Guide to Same-Sex Marriage, Domestic Partnerships & Civil Unions, by Frederick Hertz and Emily Doskow (Nolo).

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