While approximately 10,000 cases are appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court each year, only 75 to 80 make it to oral argument. Of those cases, only a handful grab the media’s attention. Below is a summary of three landmark decisions handed down in 2015 that could affect how you are taxed, pay for healthcare, and plan your estate.
Comptroller v. Wynne – A State Can’t Double Tax Income Earned Outside of the State
Legal Issue: Does Maryland’s state income tax scheme violate the U.S. Constitution by “double taxing” a resident’s income earned from economic activity in another state that also taxes the same income?
Decision, 5 – 4: In a taxpayer-friendly ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that, yes, Maryland’s “double taxation” scheme violates the dormant Commerce Clause.
The Wynne case involved a Maryland couple who owned stock in a Maryland S corporation that did business in 39 states. Since income generated by an S corporation is passed through to its shareholders, the Wynnes paid income taxes in Maryland as well as their pro-rata share of taxes on the income the corporation earned in the other states.
In Maryland, residents are subject to a state income tax as well as a “local tax” based on the city or county in which they live. Prior to the Wynne case, the state allowed residents to take a credit against the Maryland state tax to offset a similar tax paid to another state, but it did not allow a credit to be taken against the local tax. Thus, income of a Maryland resident earned outside of the state was “double-taxed” by being subject to (1) out-of-state taxes, and (2) the local city or county tax. The Court struck down this “double taxation” scheme, holding that because the dormant Commerce Clause gives Congress power over interstate commerce, Maryland could not hinder interstate commerce by offering a credit against state income taxes but not against local income taxes.
Planning Tip: The Wynne decision will potentially affect hundreds of cities, counties and states other than Maryland, including Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania. If you pay income taxes in your home state and other states, you should seek qualified tax advice regarding filing protective claims (such as amended returns or requests for refunds) for tax years in which the statute of limitations has not run.
King v. Burrell – Obamacare Subsidies Are Available to All
Legal Issue: Can the IRS provide tax-credit subsidies to healthcare coverage purchased through the federal healthcare exchange under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “ACA,” commonly referred to as “Obamacare”)?
Decision, 6 – 3: Yes, Obamacare subsidies are available to individuals who obtain their healthcare coverage through a federal exchange.
Buried in the 2,700-page ACA is a provision which states that tax-credit subsidies are available to individuals who sign up for healthcare coverage “through an exchange established by the state.” After the ACA was passed, 34 states did not establish exchanges, leaving their residents to use the federal exchange to obtain their coverage. The King case challenged the validity of federal subsidies given to these residents since the ACA appeared to limit subsidies only to individuals who relied on a state-established exchange. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts stated, “We doubt that is what Congress meant to do.” Thus, the validity of subsidies claimed by residents of the 34 states that use the federal healthcare exchange was upheld.
Planning Tip: Despite the King decision, the Obamacare debate will continue to be hashed out in the political arena as the 2016 presidential election fast approaches.
Obergefell v. Hodges – Same Sex Marriage is Legal Everywhere in the United States
Legal Issue: Does the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution require a state to license same sex marriages and recognize same sex marriages that are legally licensed and performed in another state?
Decision, 5 – 4: Yes, same sex marriages are legal and must be recognized everywhere in the United States.
The Obergefell case consolidated four cases that challenged state-banned same sex marriages in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. Relying on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court held that marriage is a fundamental liberty and denying the right of same sex couples to wed would deny them equal protection under the law.
Planning Tip: Same sex couples who are considering marriage need to decide if commitments regarding how to handle money, debt, and related matters should be formalized in a prenuptial agreement. Same sex couples who are already married need to determine if their prenuptial agreement should be fine-tuned and if their estate planning documents need to be amended in view of the King decision.
The Bottom Line on the Wynne, King and Obergefell Decisions
There are constant changes in the law from judicial, legislative, or regulatory action. These selections from the recent Supreme Court session are just a small example of the numerous changes that occur every year. How the Wynne, King and Obergefell decisions will affect your planning options has yet to be fully determined.
Sorrell Law Firm, PLC is available to answer your questions about these landmark cases and how they may affect you and your family.
Whitney Sorrell is a tax attorney who helps his clients with estate planning, sophisticated tax structures and business formation. He is a former IRS Agent and CPA.