EBSA Guidance Clarifies That “Spouse” And “Marriage” Are Determined By State In Which Same-Sex Marriage Was Recognized, Not Current Domicile

In Technical Release No. 2013-04, the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has released guidance interpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor. On June 26, 2013, the Windsor decision struck down the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to legally married, same-sex couples. In Technical Release No. 2013-04, the EBSA provides guidance to plans, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, participants, and beneficiaries on the decision’s impact on ERISA.

According to the EBSA, in general, the terms “spouse” and “marriage” in Title I of ERISA and in related Department of Labor (DOL) regulations should be read to include same-sex couples legally married in any state or foreign jurisdiction that recognizes such marriages, regardless of where they currently live. “This is the most natural reading of those terms; it is consistent with Windsor, in which the plaintiff was seeking tax benefits under a statute that used the term ‘spouse’; and a narrower interpretation would not further the purposes of the relevant statutes and regulations,” the EBSA stated.

“State” includes any state of the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Wake Island, the Northern Mariana Islands, any other territory or possession of the United States, and any foreign jurisdiction having the legal authority to sanction marriages, according to the Technical Release.

“Spouse” and “marriage,” however, do not include individuals in a formal relationship recognized by a state but not denominated a marriage under state law, such as a domestic partnership or a civil union, without regard to whether the individuals in these relationships have the same rights and responsibilities as married individuals under state law—regardless of whether the relationship is an opposite-sex or same-sex one.

“A rule that recognizes marriages that are valid in the state in which they were celebrated, regardless of the married couple’s state of domicile, provides a uniform rule of recognition that can be applied with certainty by stakeholders, including employers, plan administrators, participants, and beneficiaries,” the guidance explained.

Hailing the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez noted, “This decision represents a historic step toward equality for all American families, and I have directed the department’s agency heads to ensure that they are implementing the decision in a way that provides maximum protection for workers and their families.”

Additional guidance will be issued in the coming months as the DOL, Department of Justice, and other federal agencies implement the decision, according to Perez.

For more information, visit http://www.dol.gov/ebsa/newsroom/tr13-04.html.

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