The U.S. Supreme Court issued two landmark decisions on same-sex
marriage Wednesday that will affect how employers administer their
employee benefit plans and treat same-sex spouses. Below is a
summary of the cases, their outcomes and how these two decisions
impact plan sponsors of employee benefit plans.
In U.S. v. Windsor, the Court struck down the federal law defining
"marriage" as exclusively the union between a man and a
woman and "spouse" as a person who is married to someone
of the opposite sex. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibited
the federal government from treating same-sex and opposite-sex
married couples alike. It entitled only opposite-sex married
couples to federal privileges incident to marriage, such as the
ability to file joint federal tax returns.
In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court ruled DOMA was unconstitutional
because states and territories are generally free to define
"marriage" and the federal government must generally
accept those definitions for purposes of administering benefits
incident to marriage. Therefore, if a person in a same-sex marriage
resides in a state or territory that permits or recognizes same-sex
marriages, such as Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and the
District of Columbia, that person must now be deemed married for
federal purposes. Currently, 12 states and the District of Columbia
recognize same-sex marriage. However, if the person lives in a
state or territory that does not authorize or recognize same-sex
marriages, then federal law does not require that the person be
In a related decision, Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court declined
to rule on a dispute over the validity of a California state law
that, like DOMA, defined marriage as exclusively between a man and
a woman. This decision leaves in place a lower federal court's
ruling that California's law was unconstitutional, and so,
effectively, same-sex couples are once again permitted to marry in
What Does This Mean For Employee Benefit
These decisions will significantly impact how employers administer
their employee benefit plans and how they treat same-sex spouses
for benefit purposes. Summarized below are examples of how welfare
and retirement benefit plans will be affected:
Welfare Benefit Plans
Same-sex spouses will be able to receive tax-free employer-paid
health benefits, meaning employers will not have to impute income
on the value of employer-provided health coverage to nondependent
same-sex spouses or their children, nor will they be required to
pay payroll taxes on the imputed income.
Same-sex spouses will be able to claim COBRA continuation
healthcare coverage in the event they lose their employer-provided
coverage due to a COBRA qualifying event.
Employees will be entitled to reimbursements under flexible
spending accounts, health reimbursement accounts and health savings
accounts (HSAs) for expenses incurred by their same-sex
Earned income from same-sex spouses will affect the exclusion
amount under a dependent care assistance program.
A single-family contribution limit applicable to HSAs will
apply to same-sex couples (same-sex couples were formerly entitled
to twice the family limit).
The invalidation of DOMA may trigger a change-in-status event
under the cafeteria plan rules.
Retirement Benefit Plans
Same-sex spouses will be entitled to survivor benefits,
including those available under the qualified joint and survivor
annuity and qualified preretirement survivor annuity rules
applicable to pension plans.
Domestic relations orders involving same-sex spouses may
entitle the former spouse to retirement benefits.
Expenses related to same-sex spouses may entitle plan
participants to hardship withdrawals.
Same-sex widows/widowers will not be required to commence
payment of their same-sex spouse's retirement benefits until
April 1 of the year following the year such same-sex spouse would
have attained age 70½.
The Supreme Court's rulings in these two cases leave open
many issues. Specifically, the rulings do not answer the questions
of whether the invalidation of DOMA is prospective (i.e., effective
as of the date of the Supreme Court's ruling) or retroactive
(i.e., effective as of the date of DOMA's enactment) and what
employers are required to do to comply. We anticipate transition
guidance from the Internal Revenue Service and expect employers
will be given sufficient time to adequately address the required
changes. In the meantime, we recommend employers immediately review
their plan documents and administrative procedures to determine
what plan amendments and adjustments to administrative procedures
will be required. Day Pitney's employee benefits attorneys can
assist you in this process.
Originally published on the Employer's Law Blog
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guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
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