WASHINGTON - Like other married couples, same-sex couples are about to learn that federal benefits for being married might not be all they're cracked up to be.
Social Security benefits for spouses can be generous, but only for couples with big disparities in their incomes. Taxes are a decidedly mixed bag, and there are still a lot of unanswered questions for the Internal Revenue Service.
Many middle-income couples should get welcome tax breaks now that they can change their filing status from "single" to "married filing jointly." The biggest benefits will go to couples in which one spouse makes more money than the other.
But those at the top and bottom of the income scale could face significant tax increases.
High-income taxpayers could feel the pinch because the tax code still contains substantial marriage penalties for couples with higher incomes. Low-income taxpayers could lose benefits that target the working poor, such as the earned income tax credit, if they get married and their spouse's income disqualifies them.
Low-income parents also could lose other government benefits such as Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, if they get married and their spouse's income pushes them above certain limits.
"The poor gay couples, particularly if they're raising children, are going to face the same huge penalty structure that's now faced by low-income households in general," said Eugene Steuerle, a former Treasury official who is now a fellow at the Urban Institute.
"In that case, they may have won the court battle but are still stuck in a social structure where the government basically tells them, do not marry or you're going to lose a lot of money," Steuerle said.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down parts of a federal law that denied government benefits to same-sex couples, even if they were married in states that recognize same-sex marriages.
In 2004, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found 1,138 provisions in federal law in which marriage was a factor. Some were obscure, like being eligible to represent your spouse in negotiations over surface mine leases with the Interior Department.
Among the biggest were spousal and survivor benefits for Social Security. Social Security was designed to protect workers and their spouses even if the spouse didn't work. Under the program, if one spouse works and the other doesn't, the nonworking spouse can get retirement benefits simply by being married to the worker.
And if the worker dies first, the nonworking spouse gets 100 percent of the worker's retirement benefits.