United States: Employers Should Review How Plan Documents Define Spouse In Light Of Recent Benefits Litigation

Two recent cases challenging benefit eligibility for same-sex spouses highlight the need for employer-sponsored retirement and welfare plans to clearly define "spouse" for eligibility purposes.  Employers may want to review their plan documents to determine whether plan amendments are needed to clarify benefit eligibility for same-sex spouses in light of the upcoming ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States on the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

Two cases currently pending in the federal district courts for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania emphasize the need for employers to review and understand whether their employee benefit plans clearly define "spouse" for eligibility purposes.

The case Cozen O'Connor v. Tobits was filed in January 2011 by an employer seeking to resolve a dispute over whether benefits under the employer's profit sharing plan are payable to a deceased employee's surviving same-sex spouse or parents.  Because the plan document was not clear if "spouse," for purposes of death benefit payments, included a same-sex spouse, the deceased employee's parents argued that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevents the plan from recognizing the employee's same-sex spouse despite the fact that the couple had legally married in Toronto in 2006.  The surviving spouse argued that DOMA does not prevent employers from respecting the marriages of same-sex couples and providing equal benefits.  The employer has withheld death benefit payments until the case is resolved.  The court suspended action on the case in September 2012 pending the resolution of other current legal challenges to the constitutionality of DOMA.

Another case, Ginther et al. v. Steelworkers Health And Welfare Plan et al., was filed in February 2013 by an employee challenging his employer's denial of health coverage to the employee's same-sex spouse.  The employer's health plan does not provide clear definitions of "spouse" or "dependent," thereby exposing the employer to eligibility claims and potential liability under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA).

In light of these recent lawsuits, and other similar cases, employers should review how "spouse" and "dependent" are defined under their retirement and welfare plans.  Employers that do not clearly define these terms are vulnerable to challenges by same-sex spouses and partners if the employer denies benefits to such spouses and partners.  In particular, employers with employees who work (or live) in jurisdictions that have legalized same-sex marriage should expect to see an increase in requests for spousal benefit coverage from employees who have legally married their same-sex partners.  In addition, providing a clear definition of spouse can help to minimize the risk of competing claims for death benefits under the employer's retirement plans brought by a deceased employee's same-sex spouse and the blood relatives who otherwise may be entitled to death benefits under the plan's default beneficiary rules.  Same-sex marriage is currently legal in nine states and the District of Columbia.  The Rhode Island legislature passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage on April 24, 2013, which is awaiting the governor's signature.

DOMA is the federal law that defines marriage as between one man and one woman for all purposes of federal law.  The Supreme Court of the United States is expected to rule on the constitutionality of DOMA in June 2013.  Pending the outcome of the Supreme Court's ruling, employers can attempt to rely on DOMA's definition of spouse in administering employee benefit plans plan.  If a plan is properly drafted, the plan administrator's interpretation of an ambiguous concept should be granted a fair amount of judicial deference.  However, the DOMA definition of spouse does not automatically apply to an ERISA-covered benefit plan absent a specific plan provision saying as much, and plans without a specific definition of spouse are left vulnerable to legal challenges.  If DOMA is upheld by the Supreme Court, employers that wish to limit benefits coverage to opposite-sex spouses should specifically include a DOMA-like definition of spouse in their benefit plan documents and summary plan descriptions.

Given the prevalence of same-sex couples and the growing number of states providing legal recognition of same-sex unions, employers will be well-served to review the use of "spouse" in each of their benefit programs to determine whether the employer intends or is required to cover same-sex spouses and partners.  After the Supreme Court rules on DOMA, employers may want to prepare plan amendments and implement any necessary administrative procedures to clarify benefit eligibility for same-sex spouses and partners.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on Mondaq.com.

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Authors
Lisa K. Loesel
 
In association with
Related Video
Tools
Print
Font Size:
Translation
Channels
Mondaq on Twitter
 
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert
Email Address
Company Name
Password
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
Accounting and Audit
Anti-trust/Competition Law
Consumer Protection
Corporate/Commercial Law
Criminal Law
Employment and HR
Energy and Natural Resources
Environment
Family and Matrimonial
Finance and Banking
Food, Drugs, Healthcare, Life Sciences
Government, Public Sector
Immigration
Insolvency/Bankruptcy, Re-structuring
Insurance
Intellectual Property
International Law
Law Practice Management
Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
Media, Telecoms, IT, Entertainment
Privacy
Real Estate and Construction
Strategy
Tax
Transport
Wealth Management
Regions
Africa
Asia
Asia Pacific
Australasia
Canada
Caribbean
Europe
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
U.K.
United States
Worldwide Updates

Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement

Mondaq.com (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

Use of www.mondaq.com

You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about Mondaq.com’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.

Disclaimer

Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.

Registration

Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here .

If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq by clicking here .

Information Collection and Use

We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to unsubscribe@mondaq.com with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

Mondaq News Alerts

In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.

Cookies

A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

Log Files

We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.

Links

This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

Surveys & Contests

From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.

Mail-A-Friend

If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.

Security

This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to webmaster@mondaq.com.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to EditorialAdvisor@mondaq.com.

Notification of Changes

If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

How to contact Mondaq

You can contact us with comments or queries at enquiries@mondaq.com.

If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at problems@mondaq.com and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.