By: Alan M. Levy and John E. Murray
Two years ago, in United States v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) is unconstitutional in its requirement that “marriage” be defined as restricted to heterosexual couples. After that, regulations were issued which treated same-sex married couples as entitled to the same federal benefits and rights as opposite-sex couples, such as joint tax returns, classification of dependents for health and retirement benefits governed by federal law, and FMLA rights. Now, either by legislation or judicial determination, 37 states and the District of Columbia permit the same treatment as the federal rule.
Recently, several ramifications of these rules have become apparent. For example, if a health plan covers dependents of employees, the child of an employee’s same-sex marriage is a dependent. Similarly, an employee’s same-sex spouse is entitled to a survivor pension, which includes both payment upon the employee’s death and the requirement of the spouse’s written agreement if the employee declines joint and survivor benefits to maximize the retirement benefit during his/her own lifetime.
Some plans may be able to provide these spousal and dependent benefits under their present language. Others may require amendments to plan documents and summary plan descriptions. While some issues about same-sex marriage are scheduled for Supreme Court consideration this term, that case will not affect the federal rules which limit the application of DOMA to ERISA plans.
Plan administrators and fiduciaries are encouraged to review their programs and make all necessary modifications to comply with these rules. If there are any questions about the rules, existing benefit documents, or practices, please contact Alan Levy or John Murray here at Lindner & Marsack, S.C. We will be happy to assist you in this activity.