It is a question I've been asked countless times: What are those 1,138 mentions of marriage in the federal laws? I've long known about the special privileges of officially married people with regard to Social Security, various tax breaks, hospital practices and all the other issues to which same-sex marriage debates have sensitized us all. But those hardly add up to 1,138.
I was so thrilled when the wonderful Lisa and Christina of Onely volunteered to do some research on the matter and share it with the Living Single readership. Many of you already know Lisa and Christina (they've asked me not to use their last names) from the comments section of this blog and from Onely. They more than lived up to their reputations with all the great work they did on this. In fact, I've split their contribution into two posts. This is the first. I love their sampling of the federal statutes, from the limited and quirky ones to the sweeping and profound laws. Be sure to read more about Lisa and Christina in the note at the end of this post. Also stay tuned for Part 2, where Lisa and Christina will add more examples and provide an important wrap-up.
Guest Post from Lisa and Christina of Onely
Regular readers of Living Single know that the U.S. government provides married couples with many privileges not given to singles. The familiar examples include social security, estate, and other tax benefits accorded to married people and the privilege of making medical decisions for loved ones. But what about the rest of the 1,138 laws where marital status is a factor? What aspects of our lives do those affect? We (Christina and Lisa) at Onely decided to find out. We thought it would be fun to browse the U.S. legal code, to see just how ensconced marital privilege is in our legal system. Turns out, "fun" is not the word to use when browsing through the U.S. legal code. And come to think of it, neither is "browse."
First, some background: In 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), primarily as a response to legalization in Hawaii of same-sex marriage. The DOMA is responsible for the "official" definition of marriage that has wreaked havoc on contemporary politics and policy-making, especially when it comes to same-sex couples: It defines marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife" and defines spouse as "only ... a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife." Thanks to Congress' new definition of marriage, many other laws mentioning marriage could require new interpretation. So the next year, Congress asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to identify "federal laws in which benefits, rights, and privileges are contingent on marital status" (GAO/OGC-97-16).
The GAO's report (which was updated in 2004) includes an introduction that reads as if it were written by sweaty interns amped up on too much caffeine and not enough vitamin D: They explain that their electronic search for keywords such as "marr" and "spouse" likely found most of the laws relevant to the request, but probably not all of them... It's hard to say, they explain, because the only other way to conduct such a search would be "to read and analyze the Code in its entirety" - and, the presumed interns imply, there's no way in hell they were going to do that. Once we tried to read the Code ourselves, we began to understand their hesitation, and we were grateful that the GAO's report included layperson-friendly summaries of the laws, conveniently listed within thirteen distinct categories.
Below, we've drawn from several of the GAO summaries and analyzed a few laws ourselves, in order to expose some of the lesser-known ways in which marital status factors into how the government treats individuals. [**A small, but important, note: While the GAO found many laws which, indeed, conferred special privilege to married people, the report also makes it clear that some of the 1,000+ laws identified "may not directly create benefits, rights, or privileges" for married people - instead, these are laws where marital status simply plays a factor in how the law should be interpreted and enforced. This distinction is a significant one that we'll discuss more toward the end of the next post.]
1. Sleeping Bear Dunes
Summary: The Right of Retention of Residential Use in Improved Lands allowed those who occupied or owned "improved property" (i.e. an occupied residence) on Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore (on Lake Michigan) to retain that property, with some limitations, after it was acquired by the Secretary of State to become a national lakeshore.
Who is affected? Anyone who owned or occupied property on the designated area for Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore prior to 1982.
Where does marital status come in? If the owner dies, he can transfer that right to someone in his "immediate family," which means "spouse, brother, sister, or child, including persons bearing such relationships through adoption, and step-child." In other words, other loved ones - aunts and uncles, grandparents or best friends - would have to abandon the property upon the owner's death.
So what? For Christina, this law hit close to home, literally: this relatively obscure national park surrounds her parents' house in Michigan. If their house had been built just half a mile south, the government would have purchased it in the 1960s for inclusion in the park. However, the owner - in this case, Christina's grandfather - would have been allowed to retain his residence as long as it was not "incompatible with the purpose" of the park. So suppose Christina's grandfather had, in fact, built his house half a mile to the south, and suppose he was living not with his spouse (Christina's grandmother), but with a beloved cousin or roommate who also had an emotional investment in the house? That loved one would have to vacate the land when Christina's grandfather died, as if his passing wouldn't be enough of a loss for them.
Summary: This law protects individuals from stalkers. It defines as a stalker anyone who "travels ... with the intent to kill, injure, harass, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person, and in the course of, or as a result of, such travel places that person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to, or causes substantial emotional distress to that person, a member of the immediate family ... of that person, or the spouse or intimate partner of that person."
Who is affected? Anyone who seeks legal protection from someone stalking him or her, his or her immediate family, his or her spouse, or his or her intimate partner.
Where does marital status come in? See above. Close friends and non-immediate family members are not protected from stalking under this law.
So what? See above. We (Christina and Lisa) are not related, nor are we "intimate partners," but we do plan to live near and look after each other in our old age. So anyone holding a grudge against Lisa would likely know how much it would hurt her they threatened Christina - but much to our dismay, Christina wouldn't be protected under this law. Good thing she knows Tae Kwon Do.
3. Agricultural Loans and "Family Farms"
Summary: According to the GAO, "the law limits the amount of certain crop support payments that any one person can receive. For this purpose, a husband and wife are considered to be one person, except to the extent each may have owned property individually before the marriage. Also, agricultural loans for real estate, operating expenses, and emergencies may be made to ‘family farms,' defined as those farms in which a majority interest is held by individuals related by marriage or blood."
Who is affected? Farmers. Locavores. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members. The land that would benefit from a wide rotation of crops and lots of love from the friends who want to cultivate it.
Where does marital status come in? Although the law ostensibly protects farmers, it specifically supports farmers and their families but excludes other relationships that might be equally sustainable.
So what? Lisa tries to be a committed locavore, but she is bothered by the fact that some of the farms from which she buys might suffer if they encounter hardship one year, need a loan to get them through to the next, but are constituted by groups of friends (or even unmarried partners) instead of immediate family. Christina wonders why she and her friends can't hurry up and start their idyllic community farm. Oh - it's because they aren't eligible for any of those helpful loans!
4. Gifts (Taxation of)
Summary: Per the GAO, in general any monetary gift amounting to less than $12,000 is exempt from taxation, no matter who gives the gift and who receives it. Any gift in a larger amount is taxable, with several notable exceptions (having to do with marital status - see below).
Who is affected? Anyone who is the lucky recipient of a substantial monetary gift (Pick me! Pick me!).
Where does marital status come in? The only exception to the gift tax law, according to the GAO report, is when gifts are given from one spouse to another, in which case the gift can't be taxed at all. Additionally, "gifts from one spouse to a third party are deemed to be from both spouses equally."
So what? The gift tax law means that a married couple could give up to $24,000 to a third party but no one will be taxed. But if a philanthropic single person gifts the same amount, they'll penalize the recipient. This means that Lisa has no legal means by which she can surprise Christina with a tax-exempt $115,000 award for being the Best Co-Blogger Ever. (Otherwise, she'd totally do it. She swears.)
[From Bella: Thanks so much, Lisa and Christina! To everyone else, Part 2 is here.]
About Lisa, Christina, and Onely:
Onely is a blog that deconstructs stereotypes of singlehood. Co-bloggers Lisa and Christina both identify as white, middle-class, heterosexual women who are single and happy, yet are tired of cultural stereotypes that suggest they're not supposed to be. Christina has an MA in English and an MFA in creative writing, but she still struggles with her participles and a tendency toward semicolon abuse. She enjoys redefining what it means to be a crazy cat lady. Lisa has an MFA in creative writing and is almost finished with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. She loves writing about singles issues because it gives her a break from what she writes in "real life."