In June 2015, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that all states must license same-sex marriages
within their own states and legally recognize same-sex marriages performed
out of state (Obergefell v. Hodges, No. 14-556 (June 26, 2015)). For employers,
this means that an employee with a same-sex spouse is entitled to
the same benefits provided to an employee with an opposite-sex spouse.
Under a 2013 ruling by
the Court, Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage
Act (DOMA) was found unconstitutional. DOMA limited to
opposite-sex married couples the spousal rights and responsibilities
available under federal laws, including laws such as Employee
Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC). Following the Court's ruling,
federal laws that apply to spouses and married couples apply equally
to same-sex and opposite-sex couples who are legally married under
state law (United States v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013)).
Under a ruling issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury
and the IRS, married same-sex couples are treated as married for federal
tax purposes (Revenue Ruling 2013-17). The ruling applies to all federal
tax purposes, including income and gift and estate taxes. It also
covers federal tax provisions like filing status, dependency exemptions,
employee benefits, individual retirement account (IRA) contributions,
and the earned income tax credit or child tax credit. The ruling applies
to any legally recognized same-sex marriage, but it does not apply
to other types of legal relationships, including registered domestic
partnerships or civil unions.
In March 2015, the U.S.
Department of Labor (DOL) issued a ruling regarding married same-sex
couples and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). According to the DOL, the term "spouse" under the FMLA means a husband
or wife as defined by the “state of celebration” rule, meaning employers
must look to the law of the state in which the employee was married.
This means that an employee in a same-sex marriage is considered married
for purposes of the FMLA, regardless of the state in which the employee
resides. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell legalizing same-sex marriage in all states, employers must ensure
FMLA is provided to an eligible employee with a same-sex spouse.
The DOL has also provided guidance to plans, plan sponsors,
fiduciaries, participants, and beneficiaries on the Windsor decision's impact on ERISA. According to DOL Technical Release No.
2013-04, generally, the terms "spouse" and "marriage" in Title I of
ERISA and in related regulations include same-sex couples who are
legally married in any state or foreign jurisdiction that recognizes
such marriages, regardless of where the couple currently resides.
Similar to the IRS ruling
discussed above, DOL's release also notes that the terms "spouse"
and "marriage" do not include individuals in legal relationships other
than marriage, such as domestic partnerships or civil unions.
Self-funded plans. In 2014, a federal
district court in New York ruled that a self-funded health plan may
legally contain language that excludes dependent coverage to an employee's
same-sex spouse (Roe v. Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, No. 12-cv-04788
(S.D.N.Y. 5/1/14)). The employee, who legally married her same-sex
spouse in New York, was denied dependent coverage for her spouse under
the employer's self-funded plan which expressly excluded same-sex
spouses and domestic partners. The employee brought a class action
claiming the plan violated Section 510 of ERISA which prohibits discrimination
in the employment relationship. The court concluded that because no
adverse employment action had been taken against the employee, Section
510 did not apply. In dismissing the case, the court noted that ERISA
does not prohibit discrimination in the provision of employee benefits
and does not regulate the substantive content of plans.
Note: This case was brought under
ERISA and not under federal or state civil rights laws that prohibit
discrimination. As in many states, fair employment laws in New York
prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A similar
case brought under civil rights law might have a different result.
Several states have enacted laws providing legal recognition
of personal relationships in the form of domestic partnerships or
Civil unions. The states of Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey, have laws
allowing civil unions for same-sex couples. Civil unions in Hawaii,
Illinois, and New Jersey are also available to opposite-sex couples.
Domestic partnerships. California, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin
legally recognize same-sex domestic partnerships. Colorado provides
limited rights for same-sex couples in relation to beneficiary designations.
Washington, D.C., recognizes domestic partnerships of any two adults
(same sex or opposite sex) who share a mutual residence. The state
of Washington recognizes domestic partnerships of same-sex couples
or opposite-sex couples if one partner is 62 years of age or older.
In California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia,
partners in a registered domestic partnership have the same rights,
benefits, and legal responsibilities as spouses in a marriage. The
rights and benefits are more limited in Hawaii, Maine, and Wisconsin.
New Jersey authorizes domestic partnerships for same-sex or opposite-sex
couples if each of the partners is over the age of 62.
Relationships legalized in other jurisdictions. Same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions
are legally recognized by all states. Colorado, Illinois, and New
Jersey also recognize civil unions from other jurisdictions. In addition
to civil unions, Hawaii, Vermont, Washington, and Washington, D.C.,
recognize domestic partnerships from other jurisdictions. Colorado
also recognizes as a civil union a legal relationship from another
jurisdiction that is substantially similar to a civil union under