Supreme Court Ruling on Same-Sex Marriages Changes Workplace Benefits

United States Supreme Court building.

United States Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling could affect employers with American locations that provide federally regulated workplace benefits.

In United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) definitions of “marriage” and “spouse” that specifically excluded same-sex partners. The decision is lauded as a victory for the rights of gay and lesbian civil rights and for states’ rights to define and regulate marriage.

Twelve U.S. states have legalized same-sex marriages and many have expanded state-regulated benefits to include same-sex partners, affecting some workplace benefits—such as health, death, and disability insurance provided through group-insured plans, which are regulated by state insurance laws.

Employees who are married to same-sex partners will be entitled to the same level of benefits as their heterosexual counterparts, if the benefits (such as such as retirement plans and health benefits) are regulated by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

One example includes the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA). Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, DOMA excluded same-sex spouses from coverage of this federal piece of legislation.

Without federal same-sex limitations, employers will have to take a close look at:

  • Employee handbooks
  • Maternity leave policy
  • FMLA implementation
  • Benefit plans
  • Federal tax benefits
  • COBRA

…and anything where the definition of marriage previously excluded same-sex partners.

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