The Respect for Marriage Act would preserve the company benefits of same-sex couples. The legislation, which passed the US Senate on November 29, was inspired by concerns that the US Supreme Court might reconsider its landmark same-sex marriage decision.
Now that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states, most benefits plans will treat same-sex spouses the same as opposite-sex spouses. But several tricky issues remain. For example, what if an employer with religious beliefs wants to continue to exclude same-sex spouses from receiving benefits under its retirement plans? Or its medical and dental plans? Are employers that deny coverage vulnerable to sexual orientation and/or sex discrimination lawsuits under state and local law or to federal Title VII lawsuits? What has the EEOC said about this issue? In addition, should employers consider dropping benefits for unmarried partners? Is the answer different if the employer’s plans cover both same-sex and unmarried opposite-sex partners?
The following presentation highlights some of these considerations.
In June 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples may exercise the right to marry in all states and that states may not refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another state based on the marriage’s same-sex character. Practical Law asked McDermott lawyers Todd Solomon and Jacob Mattinson to discuss the implications of the Obergefell ruling for employers.
On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that it is unconstitutional for a state to ban same-sex couples from exercising the fundamental right to marry. All states are now required to permit same-sex couples to marry and to recognize same-sex marriages validly entered into in other jurisdictions.
McDermott Will & Emery invites you to a live webcast to discuss the impact of this landmark decision on employee benefit plan sponsors and to address key considerations for employer-provided plans, including:
An up-to-date description of federal and state taxation of health and welfare benefits
A summary of steps employers must take in light of the Supreme Court’s decision
The future of employee benefits for unmarried same-sex and opposite-sex partners
On June 26, 2015, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court of the United States determined that it is unconstitutional for a state to ban same-sex couples from exercising the fundamental right to marry. As a result of this decision, all states are now required to permit same-sex couples to marry and to recognize same-sex marriages validly entered into in other jurisdictions. Immediately prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, 37 states and the District of Columbia permitted same-sex marriage, meaning the impact of the Obergefell decision will be most significant in the remaining 13 states.
On February 23, 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Wage and Hour Division published its final rule regarding the definition of “spouse” under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Specifically, the rule recognizes all lawful same-sex spouses for purposes of FMLA leave, regardless of the couple’s state of residence. This final rule takes effect on March 27, 2015.
The FMLA permits eligible employees to take unpaid leave to care for a spouse with a serious health condition. Under the final rule, the DOL adopts the “state of celebration” rule in determining who is considered a spouse for these purposes. Accordingly, an eligible employee who has married a same-sex spouse in any state is permitted to take advantage of spousal FMLA leave, regardless of whether the couple resides in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized. The DOL previously adopted a “state of residence” rule for purposes of the FMLA, meaning an employee could take advantage of FMLA leave to care for a same-sex spouse only if the couple resided in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized. The “state of celebration” rule is consistent with the approaches adopted by the DOL and the Internal Revenue Service for purposes of other laws governing employee benefits.
Employers must review and revise their FMLA leave policies in light of this new definition to ensure spousal FMLA leave is extended to same-sex couples residing in all states beginning March 27, 2015.
The Supreme Court of the United States announced on January 16, 2015, that it would review four cases challenging the constitutionality of state laws banning same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in November 2014 that the same-sex marriage bans in these states were constitutional, thereby creating a split of opinion among the federal circuit courts.
As of January 30, 2015, same-sex marriage is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, Michigan is expected to soon begin recognizing 323 marriages that were performed there in March 2014 (during the one-day period after a district court found the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional and before an appellate court issued a stay of the district court ruling).
A ruling by the Supreme Court is expected in June 2015. If the Supreme Court rules that state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, the ruling will create precedent that will lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Same-sex couples would then be able to marry in any state and would be entitled to all of the rights, benefits and obligations that are extended to opposite-sex spouses under both federal and state laws.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional (for more information, see McDermott’s On the Subject “Supreme Court Rules on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8”). Section 3 of DOMA had provided that, for purposes of all federal laws, the word “marriage” means “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and the word “spouse” refers “only to a person of the opposite-sex who is a husband or wife.” Subsequent Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and U.S. Department of Labor guidance clarified that, as a result of Windsor, favorable federal tax treatment of spousal benefit coverage would extend to all same-sex couples legally married in any jurisdiction with laws authorizing same-sex marriage, regardless of whether the couple currently resides in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized (see McDermott’s On the Subject“IRS Guidance Clarifies Retroactive Retirement Plan Impact of Supreme Court’s Windsor Ruling” for more information). The most recent IRS guidance clarifies that, effective as of June 26, 2013, retirement plans must be administered in a manner that reflects the Windsorruling.
Next Steps for Employers
All employers should continue to monitor developments in this case and in state same-sex marriage laws. The Supreme Court’s ruling could have significant consequences for employers in states where same-sex marriage has not been legalized or that have not otherwise extended spousal benefit coverage to same-sex spouses. An employer that currently extends benefit coverage to unmarried same-sex partners would need to consider whether to continue offering such benefits if all employees can marry and thereby receive spousal coverage under the employer’s benefit plans.
The Internal Revenue Service issued Notice 2014-19 and a set of Frequently Asked Questions on April 4, 2014, clarifying certain retroactive retirement plan implications of the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling. The guidance requires plans to be administered to reflect the Windsorruling effective as of June 26, 2013, but does not require plans to retroactively recognize same-sex spouses prior to that date. In addition, the IRS clarified the requirements for any Windsor-related plan amendments.
The California state legislature recently enacted a law that may affect the taxation of benefits an employer provides to same-sex domestic partners in the state. California AB 362 excludes from gross income for California state income tax purposes the amount of any tax gross-ups paid by an employer to an employee for benefits for that employee’s same-sex spouse or domestic partner. The law was approved by California’s governor on October 1, 2013, and is effective immediately through January 1, 2019.
Earlier this year the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional (see “Supreme Court Rules on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8” for more). Section 3 of DOMA had provided that, for purposes of all federal laws, the word “marriage” means “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and the word “spouse” refers “only to a person of the opposite-sex who is a husband or wife.” Subsequent Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and U.S. Department of Labor guidance clarified that, as a result of Windsor, favorable federal tax treatment of spousal benefit coverage would extend to all same-sex couples legally married in any jurisdiction with laws authorizing same-sex marriage, regardless of whether the couple currently resides in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized (see “IRS and DOL Guidance Clarifies Employee Benefits Impact of Supreme Court’s DOMA Ruling” for more information).
As a result of Windsor and the subsequent IRS guidance, the impact of California AB 362 appears fairly limited. Pre-Windsor, some employers provided a federal tax gross-up on the imputed value of coverage provided to an employee’s same-sex spouse or domestic partner. Post-Windsor, same-sex married couples in California no longer need a tax gross-up for either state or federal tax purposes because they no longer have to be taxed on the value of the coverage provided to their spouse. Because of this treatment, application of California AB 362 would be limited to a situation where an employer provides a federal tax gross-up to an employee who is in a California-registered domestic partnership. Such a gross-up, which would have been taxable under prior state law, is now no longer taxable in California. Employers in California will need to update their payroll and tax procedures accordingly. Employers both inside and outside of California that previously provided tax gross-ups may find it desirable to revisit their gross-up policies in light of the Windsor decision and the IRS guidance.
Employers extending benefit coverage to employees’ same-sex spouses and partners should review their payroll procedures to ensure that such coverages are properly taxed for federal income and FICA tax purposes. Employers also should review the options in Notice 2013-61 and consider filing claims for refunds or adjustments of FICA overpayments.