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Senators call on IRS to clear up rules for same-sex couples

The debate over same-sex marriage has made its way to an unlikely sector of government: the Internal Revenue Service.

The debate over same-sex marriage has made its way to an unlikely sector of government: the Internal Revenue Service.

This week, eight Democratic U.S. senators sent a letter to IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, calling on the IRS to clear up confusion for same-sex couples who encounter problems trying to file accurate tax returns.

The letter was sent by senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Sen. Murray posted a copy of it on her website.

In the letter, the senators noted that some state tax laws recognize same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships, even though the federal government does not. That’s creating confusion for couples who want to file accurate returns but are classified differently by state and federal tax regulators, they said. They asked the IRS to offer guidance.

An IRS spokesman did not have an immediate comment.

The letter comes as the New York legislature moves closer to a vote on whether to legalize same-sex marriage in that state.

This isn’t the first time the tax issue has come up. The National Taxpayer Advocate, an independent organization within the IRS that seeks to help taxpayers, also noted in a 2010 report to Congress that the confusion between state laws that recognize same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships, and federal rules that do not, were creating complications for taxpayers.

“Uncertainty concerning the federal taxation of same-gender spouses or domestic partners could put taxpayers and their return preparers in an untenable position,” the taxpayer advocate wrote.

Gay rights advocates in Florida also this year mounted a “Refuse to Lie” campaign, which advocated for same-sex couples to file jointly.

The issue is burdensome because some same-sex couples end up having to file state taxes as a married couple but federal taxes as individuals, said Camilla Taylor, marriage project coordinator for Lambda Legal, which advocates for gay rights.

“It is a big problem for people who file their taxes (and) who live in states where they have validly married and yet the federal government denies any respect for their marriage,” Taylor said.

The senators say some of the confusion would be cleared up if the Defense of Marriage Act were repealed. That’s a federal law that specifies that marriage is between a man and a woman only.

A handful of states, including Massachusetts and Iowa, currently allow same sex marriage, while other states, such as Washington and Oregon, allow civil unions or domestic partnerships.