Pension & Benefit’s NetNews – June 26, 2013


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Employee Benefits Management News

  • Definition of marriage in DOMA falls under Fifth Amendment equal protection guarantees

Employee Benefits Management News

Definition of marriage in DOMA falls under Fifth Amendment equal protection guarantees

In a greatly anticipated and deeply divided opinion, the Supreme Court ruled today that lawfully married, same-sex couples are entitled to the equal protection of the laws pursuant to the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, and thus, Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) must fall (United States v Windsor, June 26, 2013, Kennedy, A). “The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes [its] purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its mar¬riage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” wrote the Court. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan joined in the opinion. Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Scalia and Alito filed dissenting opinions. Justice Thomas joined in the Scalia dissent; Justice Roberts joined it in part. Justice Thomas also joined the Alito dissent in part.

Although they longed to marry, noted the Court, the two women at the heart of the case were unable to do so in the United States. In 2007, they were married in Ontario, Canada. In time, “[t]he limitation of lawful marriage to heterosexual couples, which for centuries had been deemed both necessary and fundamental, came to be seen in New York and certain other States as an unjust exclusion,” the Court observed. Presently New York, along with 11 other states and the District of Columbia, have “decided that same-sex couples should have the right to marry and so live with pride in themselves and their union and in a status of equality with all other married persons.”

Employee benefits implications. The court’s ruling affects numerous employee benefits, which are governed by several federal laws, including the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (Code). Because of DOMA’s definition of “spouse,” federal benefits under these laws were available to an employee’s opposite-sex spouse only. Now that the Court has struck down that definition, state laws presumably will define marriage and spouse (barring future federal guidance). As such, if a state allows same-sex couples to marry, an employee’s same-sex spouse would be entitled to the same federal benefits as an employee’s opposite-sex spouse. Note, however, that Section 2 of DOMA, which allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed under the laws of other states, was not challenged in Windsor. As such, benefit plans in states that do not allow same-sex marriage or do not recognize such out-of-state marriages might continue to look to their own state law to determine entitlement to some federal benefits.

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