Same-Sex Marriage Recognition Laws

States can’t keep same-sex couples from marrying and must recognize their unions.

Updated by , Attorney (UC Law San Francisco)
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney (UC Law San Francisco)

After decades of legal uncertainty, LGBTQ couples finally achieved marriage equality when the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry (Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015).) Laws allowing same-sex couples to marry also benefit bisexual and transgender people in same-sex relationships.

The landmark Obergefell decision means that same-sex marriages are now recognized by the federal government and all other U.S. states and territories. Prior to the ruling, some states allowed same-sex couples to marry and others didn't, causing confusion about whether (and to what extent) same-sex marriages were recognized by federal and state agencies and private entities like employers.

Not all countries recognize same-sex marriages. Couples planning to travel or move abroad need to know about marriage equality around the world.

Federal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriage

Prior to Obergefell, the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) said, among other things, that no state had to recognize the legal validity of a same-sex relationship even if the relationship was recognized by another state. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court found parts of DOMA unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor (570 U.S. 744), before granting same-sex couples the right to marry in Obergefell in 2015.

Federal recognition of same-sex marriage strengthens families and offers equal status to same-sex couples. It also has practical benefits for same-sex couples, including:

  • Same-sex spouses are eligible for Social Security benefits based on their spouse's work record.
  • The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) looks at immigration visa petitions filed on behalf of same-sex spouses in the same way as those filed on behalf of opposite-sex spouses.
  • Same-sex married couples are treated as married for all federal tax laws in which marital status is a factor, including filing status, claiming personal and dependency exemptions, standard deductions, employee benefits, child tax credits, and others.

In 2022, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, lawmakers were motivated to pass the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA). The RFMA requires states to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages across state lines. The law also guarantees same-sex and interracial couples federal marriage benefits.

State Recognition of Same-Sex Marriages

Prior to Obergefell, same-sex couples faced a confusing patchwork of laws concerning marriage that varied widely from state to state. Efforts to legalize same-sex marriage began to pop up across the country in the 1990s.

Prior to allowing same-sex marriage, some states offered same-sex couples relationship recognition like civil unions and domestic partnerships, but those unions weren't necessarily recognized by other states or the federal government. Other states passed laws banning gay marriage. Most of the first states that allowed gay marriage did so because of court rulings, rather than state laws or ballot initiatives.

As marriage equality laws gained momentum, states that allowed same-sex marriage started recognizing same-sex marriages made in other states. But states with "defense of marriage" laws (bans on gay marriage) didn't recognize any same-sex marriages. Other states had no firm policy on same-sex marriages, so employers and private companies were free to make their own decisions about whether to extend health, retirement, and other benefits to same-sex spouses of employees.

But the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to all the legal uncertainty about same-sex marriage in 2015 with the Obergefell decision. States have no choice now but to allow and recognize same-sex marriages.

Same-Sex Marriage and Divorce

Along with the legal right to get married, same-sex couples in the U.S. also have the right to get divorced, as long as they meet their state's requirements to file for divorce. The procedures and laws for same-sex divorce are the same as for all divorces.

However, there are particular issues that crop up in some same-sex divorces, especially for couples who have children or lived together for years before they were able to marry legally. Also, couples who had registered domestic partnerships or civil unions before they married might have to terminate those partnerships as well. In some states, like California, you can get a divorce and end your domestic partnership in the same legal proceeding. (Cal. Fam. Code § 299 (2023).)

Marriage Equality Around the World

A growing number of governments around the world are legally recognizing same-sex marriages. As of 2022, dozens of countries have laws allowing LGBTQ people to marry. Most of the countries are in Europe and the Americas.

To keep up-to-date on same-sex marriage around the world, visit the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

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