Labor Department Extends ERISA Same-Sex Marriage Benefits

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor. According to section 3 of DOMA, “marriage” was defined as a legal union between a man and woman as husband and wife, and a “spouse” was a person only of the opposite sex who is husband or wife. According to the recent court decision, section 3 of DOMA “undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same sex marriages.”

While the Supreme Court decision expands rights for same-sex couples, it also creates additional complications when involving interstate discrepancies.  In a recent development, the Labor Department issued an interpretation of U.S. v. Windsor as applied to employee benefits plans to ensure that the rights conferred to married same-sex couples are acknowledged even after crossing state lines. Prior to this decision, employers and agencies have denied benefits to legally married same-sex couples when domiciled in a state that does not recognized same-sex marriages under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

According to the interpretation, couples are treated as “married” under ERISA if they are legally married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage. “Marriage” will also be read to include same-sex marriages that are legally recognized in any state. In practice, this means that employee benefits plans apply regardless of where the couple resides. For example, if you were married in Minnesota, but move to a state where same-sex marriage is not recognized, you are still entitled to benefits under federal law. Married same-sex couples are entitled to benefits even when they do not legally reside in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage.

According to the White House statement, the Attorney General is working with other agencies to ensure that the law is properly and fairly implemented to ensure that same-sex couples are granted certain rights and benefits under the new interpretation of the law.  Employees, spouses, fiduciaries, beneficiaries and others involved in retirement planning should be aware of how the decision and the new regulations impact Minnesota same-sex couples and their families. The interpretation will also apply to the Department of Treasure/Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) when developing policies with respect to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA).

Minnesota residents and other same-sex couples who are not legally married should keep in mind that this application does not apply to couples in civil unions or domestic partnerships.

If you are an employee in a same-sex marriage who has been denied benefits, or you were married in Minnesota and are facing obstacles in collecting benefits out-of-state, we can help. Our employment law and civil rights attorneys are dedicated to protecting the interests of Minnesota same-sex couples and their families.