The Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Same-Sex Marriage: Employer Next Steps
What should employers be thinking about in the benefits arena now that the US Supreme Court has ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that all states must issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and fully recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed out of state?
We suggest that employers consider whether the following plan design changes, health plan amendments, and/or administrative modifications are necessary:
Review employee benefit plans’ definition of “spouse” and consider whether the Court’s decision will affect the application of the definition (e.g., if the plan refers to “spouse” by reference to state laws affected or superseded by the Obergefell decision). Qualified pension and 401(k) plans generally conformed their definitions of spouse to include same-sex spouses post-Windsor to comply with Internal Revenue Code provisions that protect spousal rights in such plans, but health and welfare plans may not have been so conformed.
Communicate any changes in the definition of spouse or eligibility for benefits to employees and beneficiaries, as applicable.
Update plan administration and tax reporting to ensure that employees are not treated as receiving imputed income under state tax law for any same-sex spouses who are covered by their employer-sponsored health and welfare plans (to the extent that coverage for opposite-sex spouses would otherwise be excluded from income).
If an employer currently covers unmarried domestic partners under its benefit plans, it may want to consider whether to eliminate coverage for such domestic partners on a prospective basis (and therefore only allow legally recognized spouses to have coverage). Employers that make that type of change also will need to determine the timing and communication of such a change.
Employers with benefit plans that treat same-sex spouses differently than opposite-sex spouses should consider whether to maintain that distinction. Even though nothing in Obergefell expressly compels employers to provide the same benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex spouses, and self-insured Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) health and welfare plans are not subject to state and municipal sexual orientation discrimination prohibitions, we believe these types of plan designs are likely to be challenged.
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