Do Your Benefits Plan Documents Define Spouse Correctly?

Do Your Benefits Plan Documents Define Spouse CorrectlyDuring the summer of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case of United States v. Windsor and subsequently ruled that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act—also known as DOMA—was unconstitutional. This portion of the act had previously prevented the federal government from recognizing marriages between same-sex couples, even when those couples lived in states that had legalized same-sex marriage. At the time of the ruling, this included 12 states plus the District of Columbia. The re-legalization of same-sex marriage in California—also by the Supreme Court—soon increased that total to 13.

For employers, the United States v. Windsor decision meant changes to employee benefit plans. These changes primarily related to the definition of spouse—something every benefits plan should cover—though it has impacted a few other plan procedures and policies as well. If you’ve yet to review your plan documents to correct related issues, consider the following:

  • If your company operates in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized, federal laws require you to treat same-sex and opposite-sex spouses equally when spousal benefits are offered.
  • In states recognizing same-sex marriage, employees no longer have to pay federal income taxes on your contribution to a same-sex spouse’s medical, dental or vision coverage. Additionally, your worker’s can make contributions to a same-sex spouse’s coverage on a pre-tax basis under an appropriate plan.
  • Businesses in states recognizing same-sex marriage must offer COBRA health insurance continuation coverage to same-sex spouses.
  • If you have an employer pension plan and operate in a state recognizing same-sex marriage, it must pay surviving-spouse annuities to same-sex spouses.
  • If you’re offering a 401(k) as part of your benefits plan in a state recognizing same-sex marriage, it must pay death benefits to same-sex spouses if they are beneficiaries.
  • Companies in states recognizing same-sex marriages must allow employees to take family and medical leave to care for an ill same-sex spouse.

More than a year after the DOMA ruling, it is still unclear whether businesses within states that do not recognize same-sex marriage need to adjust their benefits plan policies to comply with the new federal definition. It appears these employers can choose either approach (to recognize same-sex marriage or not to do so) but their benefits plan documentation needs to explain their chosen definition of spouse clearly.

Guidance issued by the United States Department of Labor in September 2013 would seem to indicate that choosing to recognize same-sex marriages within your benefits plan could be the most prudent decision. It stated, “The term ‘spouse’ will be read to refer to any individuals who are lawfully married under any state law, including individuals married to a person of the same sex who were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, but who are domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriages.”

Would you like assistance reviewing your benefits plan language? We’d love to help. Please contact us anytime you require additional insight into benefits planning and procedures.