Employee Benefit Plans After the Doma Ruling

On June 26, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. Section 3 of DOMA prohibited the federal government from recognizing marriages between same-sex couples. The decision did not address Section 2, which allows individual states to decide whether they will recognize same-sex marriages occuring in other states. Currently, thirteen states and Washington, D.C. recognize same-sex marriages, and the DOMA ruling confirms that states without such recognition do not have to recognize same-sex marriages as legal under state law.

The DOMA ruling affects over 1,100 federal rights and obligations, including federal statutes and regulations that govern employee benefit plans such as retirement and health plans. The IRS and DOL must now provide guidance on how to interpret these statutes and regulations in light of the new dichotomy between state and federal law. Generally, same-sex spouses who live in a state where their marriage is recognized (such as Washington and California) will be afforded the same rights and benefits in employer-sponsored benefit plans as opposite-sex spouses. However, it is not yet clear how employers who operate in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages (such as employers operating in Oregon) should address same-sex spouses in their employee benefit plans. Until additional guidance is issued, employers in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage should consult with legal counsel when same sex marriage issues arise.

The impact of the DOMA ruling on employee benefit plans will be very broad. The employee benefit team at Saalfeld Griggs is closely following legal developments in this area, and we will work with employers to bring the administration of their employee benefit plans into compliance. Employers may call our team with any questions or concerns that arise regarding the DOMA ruling.