Issues Affecting Same-Sex Couples FAQ

Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

Does the federal government recognize same-sex marriage?

Yes. In a landmark decision in 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry anywhere in the United and that all states must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states. (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015).)

The Respect for Marriage Act, a federal law passed in 2022, requires states to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages across state lines. The law also guarantees same-sex and interracial couples federal marriage benefits.

Can the government require others to do business with same-sex couples?

No. In two decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that people who object to same-sex marriage can't be forced to do business with gay or lesbian couples.

First, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm'n., 584 U.S. ___ (2018), a Colorado law said that people and businesses offering services to the public couldn't discriminate based on sexual orientation. A baker—the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop—refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, because he objected to same-sex marriage for religious reasons. The Court decided that Colorado's law, as applied to the baker, violated the First Amendment free exercise of religion clause. The baker couldn't be forced to bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

More recently, in 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, 600 U.S. ___ (2023), a Colorado website maker objected to making websites for same-sex weddings because, she said, same-sex marriage is contrary to her religious beliefs. She asked the courts for an order preventing Colorado from enforcing its anti-discrimination law against her. The Court agreed that the law was unconstitutional, but for a different reason than in Masterpiece Cakeshop.

Forcing the website maker to create websites for gay or lesbian weddings would compel her to deliver a message—approval of same-sex marriage—that she opposed. Drawing on a long line of decisions prohibiting compelled speech, the Court found that Colorado's law violated the First Amendment free speech clause.

In short, if a business owner objects to doing business with gay or lesbian couples on religious or free speech grounds, the Court says the Constitution protects their right to discriminate. Otherwise, anti-discrimination laws should protect same-sex couples as they do opposite-sex couples.

Do same-sex couples face special concerns when it comes to taxes?

Not anymore. Now that same-sex marriage is legal in every state, all married couples are treated the same by the IRS. Same-sex couples who are married can potentially benefit from any tax rules where marriage is a factor, including:

  • filing status
  • personal and dependency exemptions
  • standard deductions
  • employee benefits
  • IRA contributions
  • the earned income tax credit, and
  • the child tax credit.

Legally married same-sex couples can file taxes in one of two ways—married filing jointly or married filing separately. To find out which is better for you, check out: Should married people file jointly or separately?

On a state level, same-sex married couples can file joint state tax returns in all states, even states that previously banned gay marriage. If you have questions about federal or state tax filings, you should talk to an experienced tax professional or lawyer.

What are domestic partnership benefits?

Domestic partners are unmarried couples (of the same or opposite sex) who live together and register their relationship with the government to receive the same legal rights as married couples.

As of 2022, only a handful of states recognize domestic partnerships. A few others recognize civil unions. All states allow for same-sex marriage.

Domestic partner benefits vary, but can include things like:

  • health, dental, and vision insurance
  • sick and bereavement leave
  • accident and life insurance
  • death benefits
  • parental leave (for a child you co-parent)
  • housing rights and tuition reduction (at universities), and
  • use of recreational facilities.

Learn more about domestic partnerships and whether they are available in your state.

Can lesbian and gay couples adopt children?

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) people have adopted children for decades, but they do face some roadblocks.

Now that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, individuals can adopt their same-sex spouses' biological children through stepparent adoption laws. For example, let's say a woman named Stephanie gives birth to a child conceived with donor sperm. Stephanie's wife can apply to adopt Stephanie's biological child through stepparent laws nationwide. If Stephanie and her partner aren't married, her partner can petition for second-parent adoption in states that allow it.

Some states allow LGBTQ couples to adopt children jointly, making both parents legal parents at the same time. Usually, these adoptions are done through domestic or international adoption agencies or independently (where the adopting parents deal directly with the birth parents or through an intermediary, like an attorney).

While same-sex couples, especially married same-sex couples, have more opportunities than ever to adopt, some private and religious adoption agencies refuse to place children with LGBTQ families. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court said that a Catholic foster care agency may ban same-sex couples from fostering and adopting. (Fulton v. The City of Philadelphia, 141 S.Ct. 1868 (2021).)

Learn more about gay and lesbian adoption and parenting.

How does a married or registered same-sex couple end their marriage or domestic partnership?

Just as same-sex couples have the right to marry in every state, they also have the right to divorce in every state. Same-sex couples must follow the same divorce processes as opposite-sex couples in their state, including rules related to:

  • fault or no-fault divorce
  • property division
  • child custody and child support, and
  • spousal support.

Learn everything you need to know about same-sex divorce.

The process for ending a domestic partnership varies in the handful of states that recognize domestic partnerships. In some states, domestic partners might simply be able to file a request to terminate the partnership with the Secretary of State. In other states, partners must go through a process similar to divorce proceedings.

Couples with questions about how to end their marriage or domestic partnership—especially ones who are married or registered in more than one place—should talk to a divorce attorney who has experience working with same-sex couples.

Resources for Same-Sex Couples

Even though the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, many questions remain for same-sex couples who are unmarried or in civil unions or domestic partnerships. And parenting rights for same-sex couples still vary depending on the couple's relationship status and state laws.

You can also find the latest information about legal issues affecting same-sex couples and their families at Lambda Legal.

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