Will Same-Sex Marriage Lead to Fathers Marrying Their Sons?

Jeremy Irons

Cover of Jeremy Irons

Actor Jeremy Irons was recently asked about the legalization of same-sex marriage. In response, he raised the question of whether or not a father could marry a son.

When I first heard that Irons spoke about a father marrying a son, I had inferred that he was just presenting the tired stock anti-same sex slippery slope fallacy in which it is claimed that if we allow same-sex marriage, then this will inevitably lead to allowing incest (and bestiality). The stock replies to this line of “reasoning” are to 1) point out that it is the slippery slope fallacy and 2) explain that allowing same-sex marriage no more allows incest (or bestiality) than does allowing different-sex marriage. After all, if different-sex couples can marry without a slide into different-sex incest and bestiality, then it would certainly seem to be the case that same-sex couples could marry without a slide into incest and bestiality.

However, Irons raised a more interesting point: if we allow same-sex marriage and this leads to allowing a father to marry his son, this could be used to work around the inheritance laws. After all, while a son would have to pay the inheritance tax on property he inherited from his father, he would not have to do so on property inherited from a deceased spouse. So, a father and son could get married not for the purpose of incest but for avoiding the inheritance tax. This idea might cause some confusion for certain Republicans—after all, this provides a way to avoid taxes but at the cost of allowing same-sex incestuous marriage.

While Irons did not explore all the ramifications, if anyone could marry anyone, then people could marry each other to get various spousal benefits (such as insurance coverage or green cards). While Irons’ point is interesting, it is easy enough to address these worries.

First, the claim that allowing same-sex marriage automatically entails that incestuous marriage be allowed is still the slippery slope fallacy. If accepting different-sex marriage does not warrant different sex-incest, then neither does same-sex marriage. And, of course, neither would warrant accepting bestiality. As such, there seems to be no reason to worry that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to fathers marrying their sons to avoid taxes.

Second, while the idea of a father marrying a son to avoid taxes seems shocking, the general problem would be the exploitation of marriage. This is not a problem unique to same-sex marriage. After all, people already exploit different-sex marriage. As a specific example, a man could marry a woman (who is not too closely related) so she can avoid paying the inheritance task.  Nothing about the current marriage laws forbids this.  To make the more general point, any advantageous exploitation of marriage that would become available to a same-sex couple with the legalization of same-sex marriage is already available to different-sex couples.

If such advantageous exploitations are the problem, then the solution would be fixing these problems rather than focusing unfairly on the idea that same-sex couples would avail themselves of existing marital exploits. For example, if there is a terrible worry that people would engage in same-sex marriage to avoid the inheritance tax, then the solution would be to require spouses to pay this tax (or eliminate it altogether). As another example, if there is grave concern that two guys will get married just so one guy can get health insurance, then the solution is to change the insurance laws. After all, if the concern is that marriage will be exploited, then the clear solution is to take away the exploitable advantages—that way we can be sure people are not marrying just to avoid a tax, get insurance or for some other similar reason.

Some people do imply that same-sex couples would be more likely to engage in such advantageous exploits than different-sex couples or even that people would pretend to be gay to gain such advantages.

One obvious response is that there seems to be no reason to think that same-sex couples would be any more (or less) likely to marry for advantages. As far as people pretending to be gay, that seems to be rather odd—after all, a person who is not gay and wants to marry for an advantageous exploit could simply find a person of the opposite sex. The idea of pretending to be gay might make for a plot device for a comedy, but is hardly something that would be commonly (or even uncommonly) done.

If the problem is that same-sex couples would have the same advantages as different-sex couples, then this would seem to be a mere expression of prejudice.

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