THE BLOG
06/29/2010 06:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Know Your 1,138 Marital Privileges, Courtesy of the Feds

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 delighted when the wonderful Lisa and Christina of Onely volunteered to do some research on the matter and shared it here. You can read more about Lisa and Christina (they've asked me not to use their last names) in the note at the end of this post.

Guest Post from Lisa and Christina of Onely

Many people already 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 this post.)

[Note from Bella: Below are just two of the laws analyzed by Lisa and Christina. Their analyses of other laws are here and here.]

Stalking

Summary: This law protects individuals from stalkers. It defines 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 if they threatened Christina -- but much to our dismay, Christina wouldn't be protected under this law. Good thing she knows Tae Kwon Do.

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!

[From Bella: Thanks so much, Lisa and Christina! To readers: this is just a sampling of Onely's reporting on this issue. For more, read here and here.]

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?