Supreme Court Ruling on Same-Sex Marriage: Impact on Employee Benefits

July 2013

The United States Supreme Court’s landmark decision on June 26, 2013 in United States v. Windsor that struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional has far reaching implications for employee benefit plans.1 Section 3 of DOMA provided that only persons of the opposite sex could be recognized as “spouses” for purposes of federal law and that a “marriage” could only be between opposite-sex partners. Many aspects of employee benefit plans are governed by federal laws (e.g., the Internal Revenue Code and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended (ERISA)) and there are often special rules specific to “spouses” and different rules for married and single individuals. As such, Section 3 of DOMA prevented same-sex spouses from being recognized as “spouses” for benefit plan purposes and from being afforded many of the same rights and protections as opposite-sex spouses.

However, now that Section 3 of DOMA has been deemed unconstitutional, employee benefit plan sponsors will want to revisit their benefit plans and practices, as the Supreme Court’s decision has immediate implications for retirement benefits, health and welfare benefits, fringe benefits and payroll practices. We highlight for you in this Alert some of the most notable implications for employee benefit plans and discuss some of the more pressing questions that the Supreme Court’s decision has left open.

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