“Spouse” and “marriage” include same-sex legally married couples, DOL says

In general, the terms “spouse” and “marriage” in ERISA and related 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, according to a technical release issued by the Labor Department. The guidance reflects the recent Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor.

Note: The IRS previously announced that it will recognize all legal same-sex marriages for federal tax purposes.

In Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which provided that, in any Federal statute, the term “marriage” meant a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and that “spouse” referred only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife. The technical release provides guidance to plans, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, participants and beneficiaries on the decision’s impact on ERISA.

The release states that, in general, for purposes of ERISA and related Labor Department guidance, 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. Similarly, the term “marriage” will be read to include a same-sex marriage that is legally recognized as a marriage under any state law.

The terms “spouse” and “marriage,” however, do not include individuals in a formal relationship recognized by a state that is not denominated a marriage under state law, such as a domestic partnership or a civil union, regardless of whether the individuals who are in these relationships have the same rights and responsibilities as those individuals who are married under state law, the technical release states. This applies to individuals who are in these relationships with an individual of the opposite sex or same sex.

State of celebration

“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,” according to the Labor Department release. Adopting the state of celebration rather than the state of domicile would reduce administrative complexity, the DOL indicated.

“A rule for employee benefit plans based on state of domicile would raise significant challenges for employers that operate or have employees (or former employees) in more than one state or whose employees move to another state while entitled to benefits,” the release states. “Furthermore, substantial financial and administrative burdens would be placed on those employers, as well as the administrators of employee benefit plans. For example, the need for and validity of spousal elections, consents, and notices could change each time an employee, former employee, or spouse moved to a state with different marriage recognition rules.”

In addition to the general guidance provided in the technical release, the Department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) said that it intends to issue future guidance addressing specific provisions of ERISA and its regulations. Additional information will be made available at www.dol.gov/ebsa.

Source: ERISA Technical Release 2013-04.

For more information on this and related topics, consult the CCH Pension Plan Guide, CCH Employee Benefits Management, and Spencer’s Benefits Reports.

Visit our News Library to read more news stories.