Spousal Equality for Same Sex Spouses under ERISA

US DOL

The Department of Labor – Employee Benefits Security Administration issued guidance pertaining to equal treatment of  same-sex spouses who are otherwise eligible for coverage under a plan are entitled to the same ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act. ) protections as spouses of the opposite sex. This was prompted by the recent decision of the Supreme Court’s United States v. Windsor case on the Employee Retirement Income Security Act.

“By providing greater clarity,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employee Benefits Security Phyllis C. Borzi, “we are contributing to greater equality and greater protection for America’s working families.”

For purposes of this guidance, the term “state” means any state of the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Wake Island, the Northern Mariana Islands, any other territory or possession of the United States, and any foreign jurisdiction having the legal authority to sanction marriages.

The terms “spouse” and “marriage,” however, do not include individuals in a formal relationship recognized by a state that is not denominated a marriage under state law, such as a domestic partnership or a civil union, regardless of whether the individuals who are in these relationships have the same rights and responsibilities as those individuals who are married under state law. The foregoing sentence applies to individuals who are in these relationships with an individual of the opposite sex or same sex.

A rule that recognizes marriages that are valid in the state in which they were celebrated, regardless of the married couple’s state of domicile, provides a uniform rule of recognition that can be applied with certainty by stakeholders, including employers, plan administrators, participants, and beneficiaries.

A rule for employee benefit plans based on state of domicile would raise significant challenges for employers that operate or have employees (or former employees) in more than one state or whose employees move to another state while entitled to benefits. Furthermore, substantial financial and administrative burdens would be placed on those employers, as well as the administrators of employee benefit plans. For example, the need for and validity of spousal elections, consents, and notices could change each time an employee, former employee, or spouse moved to a state with different marriage recognition rules. To administer employee benefit plans, employers (or plan administrators) would need to inquire whether each employee receiving plan benefits was married and, if so, whether the employee’s spouse was the same sex or opposite sex from the employee. In addition, the employers or plan administrators would need to continually track the state of domicile of all same-sex married employees and former employees and their spouses. For all of these reasons, plan administration would grow increasingly complex, administrators of employee benefit plans would have to be retrained, and systems reworked, to comply with an unprecedented and complex system that divides married employees according to their sexual orientation. In many cases, the tracking of employee and spouse domiciles would be less than perfectly accurate or timely and would result in errors or delays.

To read the complete Guidance, please click on the link “Guidance to Employee Benefit Plans on the Definition of “Spouse” and “Marriage” under ERISA and the Supreme Court;s Decision in United States v. Windsor”

 

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