When the city of San Francisco briefly legalized same-sex marriage in 2004, Jack Denelsbeck and Jonathan Javins jumped at the chance to wed. The couple had been together for seven years, and at a time when gay marriage wasn’t legal anywhere else, they thought it would be their only chance to say their vows in front of friends and family.
"I will never forget how overwhelming it felt to join hands and exchange rings," said Denelsbeck, 33. "We both burst into uncontrollable heaving sobs."
The last thing on their minds was taxes.
Soon afterward, the California Supreme Court deemed the couple’s nuptials invalid. So when Denelsbeck and Javins moved to New Jersey from Brooklyn three years later, they entered into a civil union, which grants the same rights and protections as marriage, only without the title. It wasn’t as romantic as that day at San Francisco’s city hall, but finally gaining recognition of their relationship overshadowed the shock that would come later.
"We didn’t think about taxes when we got the civil union," said Denelsbeck, a health educator in Manhattan. "But then, all of a sudden, there were all of these issues."
Filing taxes can be a headache for anyone. But for New Jersey’s same-sex couples in civil unions, especially those who work in other states, that headache is more like a migraine, the pain is magnified by a labyrinth of tax guidelines due to varying recognitions of their marital status.
Because same-sex marriage laws vary from state to state, how a unioned couple may file in each state they live and work also varies. Civil unioned New Jerseyans who work in New York, for instance, have to prepare six or more tax forms, while heterosexual couples need only prepare three.
This year, Denelsbeck and Javins had to prepare seven, at a cost of $925.
"Every year it’s more and more stressful and frustrating," said Denelsbeck, who lives with Javins, 40, in Jersey City.
Both interstate commuters, the couple tried using self-serve tax software the first couple of years and found it somewhat helpful, but once they bought property together, it became too complex to navigate. Now they use a CPA, having to pay up to 40 percent more than the average married couple as a result of the time and fees it takes to complete the extra returns.
The headache begins at the federal level. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government does not recognize same-sex unions. So New Jersey couples who are civil unioned must file their federal taxes as individuals.
But their state taxes, which can be filed jointly, are culled from a joint federal return. That means couples must also fill out the federal paperwork as if they are married, pull the information for New Jersey, and then throw it away.
Now say the couple earns income in New York City. New York recognizes civil unions for legal purposes but not for tax purposes, so they have to file as individuals — unless they wed there after the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2011, in which case they can file jointly.
Denelsbeck and Javins schedule several meetings with their CPA each year to get their taxes in order. Besides taking up hours of their time, they have to pay for the extra paperwork — and they miss out on any federal marriage-related deductions, which could amount to thousands of dollars.
Worse than the financial loss, said Denelsbeck, is the feeling of having to file as an individual, both federally and in the state where they work. "Having to check a box that doesn’t reflect my relationship, you kind of feel like you’re being demeaned."
And it works both ways. New Jersey couples who married in New York default to a civil union here, explained Hayley Gorenberg, the deputy legal director of Lambda Legal, a gay and lesbian civil rights organization.
"It’s just insulting to their committed married relationships," said Gorenberg. "It’s a shame that people are trying to do their basic civic duty as taxpayers, and the government is throwing these hurdles in their way."
John Traier, a CPA at Hammond Traier & Burns in Wayne, specializes in preparing taxes for same-sex couples in the tri-state area. He said it’s a challenge for accountants to serve same-sex clients. "It just gets kind of hairy," said Traier. "The tax software hasn’t really been written to deal with the same-sex landscape. So we’ve been suffering through it."
Also suffering through it are the couples who decide to file without the help of an accountant. Turbo Tax keeps up-to-date on state marriage laws and explains to married gay couples how to fill out both the individual and dummy federal forms. But the company admits there are limits to the instruction it can offer.
"Because of the complexity and lack of clarity on the various states rules regarding civil unions or same-sex marriages, tax software is currently not able to provide tailored guidance for those that need to file non-resident returns," wrote Ashley Kirkendall, a company spokeswoman, in an email.
Despite the extra work, Denelsbeck said he and Javins have no plans to get married on the other side of the Hudson just so they can prepare one less tax form. Instead, he would like to see marriage recognized in his home state first. A bill granting same-sex marriage passed in the state Senate and Assembly this past February, only to be vetoed by Governor Chris Christie.
"We were so close and the momentum keeps on building," said Denelsbeck. "But whenever tax time comes around, we’re still reminded that we’re not treated as equal citizens."