The Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which brought marriage equality to all 50 states, is still having ripple effects in the legal system, bringing closure to many same-sex families. Two victories this week demonstrate how the ruling is retroactively securing justice by recognizing same-sex marriages.
A judge in Bucks County, Pennsylvania has ruled that two women were in a valid common-law marriage when one of them passed away in 2013, back before marriage equality was even recognized in the commonwealth. According to Judge C. Theodore Fritsch Jr., Sabrina L. Maurer and Kimberly M. Underwood “entered into a valid and enforceable marriage under Pennsylvania common law on Sept. 2, 2001″ that remained in effect until Underwood’s passing.
The two had held a religious ceremony, combined their wills, and named each other their beneficiaries. “Their marriage is valid and enforceable,” Fritsch ruled, “and they are entitled to all rights and privileged of validly licensed married spouses in all respects under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Pennsylvania actually abolished common law marriage in 2005, but still recognizes such marriages that were entered into before then. Since its ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, Maurer and Underwood’s marriage is entitled to the same retroactive recognition as other couples’. Maurer had sued United of Omaha, which had refused to pay her a spousal beneficiary payment, and Dearborn National Insurance Co, which had denied her a survivor’s benefit on disability payments Underwood had received. She will also now apply to have the inheritance tax she paid to Pennsylvania refunded.
Meanwhile, an arduous legal fight in Alabama also came to an end this week. David Fancher and Paul Hard had married in 2011 in Massachusetts, but moved home to Alabama where their marriage was not recognized. When Fancher died in a car crash mere months later, Hard was denied everything. The death certificate would not mention their marriage, and Pat Fancher, his mother-in-law, became the sole beneficiary of any proceeds from the wrongful death suit Hard filed.
When Hard, with support from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), sued to challenge Alabama’s marriage ban, Pat Fancher, who disapproved of their relationship, fought back to deprive him of any recognition of his marriage. She was represented by The Foundation for Moral Law, the conservative organization founded by Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and run by his wife. They argued as recently as last week that even after Obergefell, she should still win because the marriage was not recognized before the decision. The judge disagreed.
Chief United States District Judge W. Keith Watkins denied Fancher’s requests for reconsideration on Wednesday and ordered that the funds Hard deserves be transferred to his account — over half a million dollars. He had already received an amended death certificate after a separate ruling brought same-sex marriage to Alabama back in February.
In Hard’s case, it was the other aspect of Obergefell that ensured the retroactive recognition. The Supreme Court decision found it unconstitutional both for states to ban same-sex marriage and for states to refuse to recognize as valid a marriage from another state. It doesn’t matter when Alabama refused to recognize a Massachusetts marriage; it was unconstitutional to do so.
Referring to Fancher’s arguments against retroactive recognition, SPLC staff attorney Scott McCoy, who represented Hard, told ThinkProgress, “There is a general rule of retrospective effect for the constitutional decisions of the Supreme Court. Only exceptional circumstances warrant departing from the normal rule. We have not heard of this argument being made in any other cases, which is not surprising because the argument that the Obergefell decision should not be applied retroactively really amounts to desperate grasping at straws.”
These cases suggest that there may be more opportunities for retroactive relief from marriage discrimination. After the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Windsor, which allowed the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, the IRS issued guidance for same-sex couples to jointly refile their federal taxes from previous years so that their marriage could be recognized for those filings. In states where marriage equality just arrived, same-sex couples would likely prevail in refiling their state taxes in a similar fashion. New relief could similarly be available in cases involving death benefits, divorce arrangements, and other protections that fall under the rights and responsibilities of marriage.