June 26, 2013 -- Tommy Starling and Jeff Littlefield, who were legally married in California in 2008 just before the passage of Proposition 8, burst into tears when they heard the dual Supreme Court rulings this morning that many are hailing as a victory for same-sex couples.
"Today's ruling means the federal government will no longer be allowed to treat some American families differently," Starling told ABCNews.com. "Now all same-sex couples who are married or who have the freedom to marry will be able to provide their children the necessary legal and economic protections they need in life."
The couple was recently honored at the White House as model dads. But in the eyes of the federal government, they have had none of the rights and privileges afforded heterosexual couples because of a law known as the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled section 3 of the 1996 law as unconstitutional, the Starling-Littlefields can enjoy all the financial benefits and equal dignity of a recognized marriage.
The court also threw the Proposition 8 case back to a lower court in California, striking down a same-sex marriage ban in that state.
The 5-4 decision read: "DOMA violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the federal government. Under DOMA same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways.
"By its great reach DOMA touches many aspects of married life from the mundane to the profound."
The couple, who met 18 years ago -- a decade before Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004 -- hailed the court decision as historic.
"We both grew up thinking we would never have the opportunity to get married -- at least not to the person we loved," Starling told ABCNews.com. "And we definitely thought we would never have the opportunity to be parents. Something as major as this is a victory for us -- we are no longer second-class citizens."
Starling is the stay-at-home father, and Littlefield, 57, works in the insurance business and is the major breadwinner.
"Jeff has pensions that I cannot touch because of the marriage laws," said Starling. "That would definitely compromise the children's well-being because I don't make anywhere near what he does."
They have gone through "extra legal steps" by opening trusts for the children to protect them financially. "It's a very difficult situation," he said.
DOMA had denied federal benefits to same-sex couples in more than 1,000 statutes that pertain to marriage. Its challengers, including President Obama, said it was unconstitutional.
The Starling-Littlefields live in South Carolina, where they are raising a 3-month-old son Braxton and a 7-year-old daughter Corrigan, who were conceived through their mixed sperm and a surrogate in California. But they live in a state where they are considered "legal strangers."
Legal experts say repeal could cause confusion among couples who live in one of 38 states where same-sex marriage is not legal. Some benefits like tax breaks for married couples and Social Security survivorship might not be available, depending on the state.
Federal agencies use a number of different criteria to determine if a couple is eligible for benefits. For example, most federal agencies use one or a combination of the following rules to determine whether a couple is "married": the state where a couple married, where they reside or where they work.
The DOMA ruling has wide-reaching implications for all 12 states where same-sex marriage is legal, now allowing all federal benefits -- from postal worker pensions to Social Security survivorship and preferential estate-tax treatment once only afforded heterosexual spouses.
For Maj. Shannon McLaughlin, a 43-year-old judge advocate general serving in the U.S. Army, the repeal of DOMA means she can take advantage of military medical benefits for her spouse. She was one of 16 plaintiffs in the litigation challenging the law.
McLaughlin said the Supreme Court decision has a "profound and direct effect" on all same-sex couples. "I am feeling elated and very hopeful that the issues in our case are quickly resolved and all military families are treated equally."
She and her wife Casey were married in 2010 and live in Concord, Mass., raising 2-year-old twins, Grace and Grant, who have access to military health care benefits. But McLaughlin must pay $700 a month out of pocket to insure her wife, a former history teacher who stays at home with the children.
"The children can have health care, but my wife can't," she said. "It's extremely expensive. She is the mother of my children and we have to keep her insured. I am the breadwinner and my salary is sustaining the family. I can't take a risk of anything happening to her. The cost could be catastrophic, but it's a huge strain."
DOMA has also had an adverse effect on gay and lesbian couples who are seeking legal status for an immigrant spouse.
Diana Carrol, an American, married Sarah Lamming, who is British, in Maryland in January. Both are Episcopal priests living in Annapolis. For now, Lamming has a visa to work in the United States through her employer, the church. But she has been afraid that when it expires next year, she could be deported.
Now, she is ecstatic. "Diana and I are delighted that we are finally recognized as married by the U.S. government," she told ABCNews.com today. "This decision not only helps us but it is so important for so many family -- it's actually life-changing."
"We have had a little bit of stability for the last two years on a non-immigrant visa," said Lamming, 30. "But we still haven't got a permanent solution."
They have also been penalized by the tax code. Because their marriage was not recognized by the federal government, they could not file jointly with the IRS. "We are treated as separate people," she said. "The inheritance tax also falls on the surviving spouse."
Now, after being together for eight years, they "instantly" have financial stability. "We are looking forward to celebrating."
"Diana is filing a green card for me," said Lamming. "It will give us a chance to know how to be a family together and not to worry about me getting deported or being dependent on my job."
More than 278 companies also signed a brief in support of DOMA's repeal.
"I take it to mean they are sensitively attuned to what is going on," said Bob Witeck, CEO of Witeck Communications, a firm that serves the LGBT market. "They are faster than politicians to take clues and metrics and read them properly. Their imperative is to watch trends and align with trends. ...Most important, perhaps, is that business leaders see doing the right thing is also the smart thing."
"We are an eyewitness to change," said Witeck. "The argument is more about civil rights. It's an affirmed fairness argument and young people are the drivers."
Amanda Hopping-Winn and her partner Jennifer of Berkeley missed an opportunity to marry during the narrow window when same-sex marriage was legal in California.
The couple had a civil ceremony in 2010 in Amanda's home state of New Jersey officiated by her childhood rabbi. "We already had the big reception and the extensive guest list and public display," she said.
Since then, she has given birth to a son, Owen, who is now 2, and the couple is attempting to have a second child. With same-sex marriage now fully recognized in the state, Hopping-Winn, 30, said "we'll jump all over the chance."
She said the road to this Supreme Court decision has been an "absolute emotional roller coaster."
The night President Obama was elected, she said there had been "so much joy," then Prop 8 was enacted by referendum. U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker overturned the law, then there was a stay. "It's been up and down and up and down," said Hopping-Winn.
Now the court has ruled in favor of same-sex couples in California.
"It's a victory and we will take it," said Hopping-Winn, an associate director of a substance abuse resource center. "We are on the right side of history. It's a waiting game [for the whole country to recognize same-sex marriage], but we'll take it as a win."
Joseph and Kevin Covey, in entertainment management and wedding planning in Orange County, were married before same-sex marriage was derailed in California. The couple, 39 and 37, respectively, has been together 14 years.
Their adoptive 9-year-old twin sons filed depositions in the Supreme Court case.
Wrote Austin: "When people are in love there should be nothing holding them back. People should not stop others from loving the one person they choose to spend the rest of their life with. Marriage is about family and my dads take the best care of me and my brother."
He said his family was no different from others: "We go to the movies, they take me to my sports practice, play games and make the holidays, especially Christmas, awesome."
Joseph Covey said he is "disappointed" that the Supreme Court did not go further in their ruling and outlaw marriage discrimination in all 50 states.
"This is about human rights and recognizing a loving couple who want to share their commitment with one another," he said. "If I decide to move from California to Nebraska, where they don't recognize my marriage, that's a problem."
"I didn't like the campaign of Prop 8, pitting family against family," he said.
"They say they are trying to protect marriage, but in the community I live in, I am like any other parent with kids and teach them the same values -- not to lie, not to cheat, to be forthright. What are they protecting marriage from?"
As for the Starling-Littlefields, the Supreme Court ruling on Prop 8 also resonates with them, one of the 18,000 other couples who have been in "legal limbo" since 2008.
"We can now tell our kids that it's OK that their daddies are married," said Starling. "I think it will help stabilize our family, as well."