The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today (April 28) about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. Now that the two-and-a-half-hour session has ended, the nine justices are formulating their thoughts and are expected to release a decision in June.
The rulings on the four cases heard during today's arguments will have a monumental impact on the laws regarding same-sex marriage in the United States. The justices will decide whether states can ban same-sex marriage. The court will also rule on whether states need to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully officiated in other states or countries.
"There are literally hundreds and hundreds of rights under state and federal law that are affected by whether you can marry or not," said Jeffrey Trachtman, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP, a law firm with offices in New York City, Silicon Valley and Paris. "Insurance, Social Security, eligibility for certain kinds of housing — the list just goes on and on." [8 Supreme Court Rulings That Changed US Families]
Here are six ways the Supreme Court's ruling could affect the lives of same-sex couples living in the United States.
If you're not married, it's generally more complicated to adopt a child, Trachtman told Live Science.
"Unmarried couples can sometimes adopt together," Trachtman said. "But it's just easier [if you're married]. You're presumed to have a more stable home."
In fact, one of the Supreme Court cases involves two women who want to get married, in part because Michigan laws do not allow unmarried couples to jointly adopt children, according to SCOTUSblog, a blog that follows Supreme Court cases.
April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, two women who have lived together for 10 years and who own a home together, have three adopted children, according to SCOTUSblog. Because they can't get married in Michigan, and thus cannot jointly adopt their three children, DeBoer has adopted one child and Rowse has adopted the other two. But the women cannot share their health insurance with their nonadopted children. And, if one woman dies, the other would not get automatic custody of the nonadopted children, according to SCOTUSblog.
Having marriage rights "certainly makes it easier to adopt, and easier to be considered as a second parent for your spouse's adopted child," Trachtman said.
2. Sponsoring a spouse
Marriage gives U.S. citizens the right to sponsor their foreign spouse for immigration status, including getting a green card.
Following a 2013 Supreme Court decision, the Obama administration began allowing married same-sex couples the right to sponsor a foreign spouse, Trachtman said. But many same-sex couples don't qualify for this legal option because they can't get married in their home states.
"People who can already get married now have that treatment under the federal immigration laws," Trachtman said. "But people who can't get married still can't take advantage of that." [5 Myths About Gay People Debunked]
Nobody likes getting sick on vacation, but it can be especially dangerous for gay couples if they're traveling in a state that doesn't recognize same-sex marriage.
"Let's say that somebody has to go to the hospital, and [the hospital doesn't] treat you as a spouse for purposes of making health care decisions or access for visits," Trachtman said.
It's now legal for same-sex couples to get married in 37 out of 50 states, and the District of Columbia. But the remaining 13 states could be a problem for same-sex couples, even if they are legally married in their home states, Trachtman said.
Currently, some couples work around this by giving their partners powers of attorney, so that the partner will be able to make decisions for them in case there's a crisis, Trachtman said. The Supreme Court could simplify this interstate problem by legalizing same-sex marriage or by asking all states to recognize these unions, even if they're not legal there, he added.
4. Taxes, Social Security and insurance
Married people have a slew of benefits; they can file joint state and federal taxes, continue to receive their deceased spouse's Social Security payments through a program called survivor benefits, and take part in their spouse's work-sponsored health insurance plans.
"Many private employers and businesses use martial status for a basis for whether they get certain kinds of benefits," Trachtman said. "It could be putting people on health insurance, or something as silly as a married discount for a health club."
5. Inheritance and death
Federal tax laws have a big say in inheritance. For someone in a married couple, "your spouse inherits everything without paying any taxes," Trachtman said. "You only pay an inheritance tax when the second spouse dies."
The tax is required if a couple is not married, he said. This issue was argued in the 2013 Supreme Court case U.S. v. Windsor, which involved two New York women who had married in Toronto, Canada, in 2007. After one of them died in 2009, the other was required to pay more than $360,000 in federal estate taxes because the Internal Revenue Service did not recognize their marriage.
In U.S. v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited lawfully married same-sex couples from accessing the federal benefits afforded to opposite-sex married couples and their families. The new ruling could make same-sex unions legal across the country so that married couples wouldn't have to worry about paying an inheritance tax.
Also, state laws usually give spouses the automatic right to make burial decisions — for instance, whether to bury or cremate a person's remains. Spouses can also typically determine where to bury their husbands or wives.
"If they're not married, the family can overrule them," Trachtman said. "And they'll have no say even if they were together for 20 years."
Financial benefits and practicalities aside, marriage can also deliver equal dignity in a community, Trachtman said.
Marriage "has a lot of power and respect in a lot of communities, and to not be able to do that is sort of sending a signal that their relationships are second class," Trachtman said.
Children may also be aware of that dignity (or the lack of it), especially if their friends' parents are married, he added.
"They feel bad that their family is not considered as good as other families," Trachtman said.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Laura is the archaeology and Life's Little Mysteries editor at Live Science. She also reports on general science, including paleontology. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site on autism research. She has won multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association for her reporting at a weekly newspaper near Seattle. Laura holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and psychology from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in science writing from NYU.