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Bethlehem Same-Sex Widow Challenges Pa. Inheritance Tax

Department of Revenue charges 15 percent tax on survivors of same-sex couples, while "legally married" couples pay nothing.

Barbara Baus (left) and Cathy Burgi-Rios (contributed photo)
Barbara Baus (left) and Cathy Burgi-Rios (contributed photo)

A Bethlehem widow of a same-sex marriage has sued the state of Pennsylvania to seek equal treatment under Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax laws, according to a news release issued by her attorneys.

Barbara Baus is contesting the state Department of Revenue’s assessment of a 15 percent tax on items she owned jointly with her spouse, Catherine Burgi-Rios, who died of leukemia in September 2012.

A petition was filed Friday in Northampton County Orphan’s Court by Baus’ attorneys, Benjamin Jerner and Tiffany Palmer at Jerner & Palmer, P.C., a Philadelphia law firm focusing its practice on LGBT estate planning, estate administration and family law.

“The Pennsylvania Constitution does not permit the Commonwealth to tax same-sex married couples and opposite-sex married couples differently for inheritance tax,” Palmer said.

Fifteen percent is the highest inheritance tax Pennsylvania charges to legal strangers. Spouses are charged nothing, but Pennsylvania does not legally recognize same-sex marriages.

Baus and Burgi-Rios had resided together for more than 15 years when they married on April 29, 2011 in Fairfield County, Conn.

The couple had a church wedding in 1999 and supported each other emotionally and financially. They jointly owned a home, cars and bank accounts. Cathy named Barbara as her executor and sole beneficiary of all of her assets in her will.

According to the news release, Baus filed the required Inheritance Tax Return with the Register of Wills of Northampton County, noting her status as Cathy’s spouse. She claimed the spousal rate for Pennsylvania’s inheritance tax, which is zero.

The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue responded by stating her marriage is “not valid in Pennsylvania” and assessed taxes due under the rate that applies to legal strangers.

Baus’ petition claims that the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue’s determination that it will not recognize her marriage and apply the tax rate for spouses violates both the Pennsylvania and the U.S. Constitutions.

Baus spoke at Payrow Plaza in June as she and dozens more publicly celebrated after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal Defense Of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.

“I cried for 20 minutes this morning—tears of absolute joy,” Baus told the nearly 100 people who had gathered to celebrate the decision.

“I just want my marriage to be respected like any other marriage,” Baus said regarding her lawsuit. “It is hard enough to cope with the loss of a spouse, but to have my marriage treated with such disregard is heartbreaking. I know standing up for our equal rights is what Cathy would have wanted me to do.”

Baus’ lawsuit raises the unique issue that Pennsylvania’s Defendant of Marriage Act violates the Uniformity Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states that all taxes in Pennsylvania must be assessed upon the same classes in a uniform fashion, according to the Jerner & Palmer news release.

“This case is a clear example of how Pennsylvania’s DOMA injures – in a very real way – same-sex couples who have valid marriages,” said Benjamin Jerner, one of Baus’s attorneys.

Mary Anne Looby October 30, 2013 at 09:07 AM
This is insane. They were married in a state that recognizes same sex marriages. There are some states in the south that allow girls to marry as young as 15, or 16. You can't do that it in PA .what happens when a legally married couple move to PA from one of these states. Does PA not recognize the marriage? Can the husband go to jail for corupting a Minor? Do they have to file their PAtax returns seperately. This will be overturned. PA needs to get with the program.

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