Back in 2004 Josh Baker at the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy examined the claim that civil marriage confers 1,138 distinct benefits and rights. Here was one of his conclusions:
"... a preliminary analysis clearly shows that the claim there are “1,138 federal marriage benefits” is simply incorrect ... Couples who marry expecting to receive “1000 federal marriage benefits” are likely to be disappointed."
The only thing that has changed since 2004 is that now gay marriage groups are claiming even more benefits and rights are attached to marriage: 1,700 is the new number some use.
... we were surprised to discover that the GAO had simply done a search of the U.S. Code to identify laws that use words or word fragments like "marr" (for marriage), "spouse," "widow" or "survivor."
In fact, the report itself cautions that "some of these laws may not directly create benefits, rights, or privileges." It also warns that "no conclusions can be drawn … concerning the effect of the law on married people versus single people. A particular law may create either advantages or disadvantages for those who are married, or may apply to both married and single people."
... out of the 45 federal and state laws we examined, 31 clearly offer a benefit for someone who is married. But under 3 other laws, a married person may actually face a disadvantage. And in the remaining 11 cases, it doesn't appear that the distinction affects people's rights at all, a fact the GAO itself acknowledged when listing federal statutes.
... To assert that any law referring to "marriage" or "spouse" or "divorce" or a comparable term marks a point of discrimination and, as a result, warrants inclusion on the list strikes us as a stretch.
Politifact RI's conclusion: "when numbers like these are thrown around, we expect advocates to have more to back them up than a rudimentary word search that fails to say what right or benefit might be at stake."