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Employee Benefits Implications of Supreme Court Decision on Same-Sex Marriage

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.

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Treasury Department & IRS Issue DOMA Guidance – Adopt a “State of Celebration” Approach

In Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Revenue Ruling 2013-17, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the IRS today ruled that legally married same-sex couples will be treated as married for federal tax purposes.  Importantly, the ruling applies regardless of whether the couple lives in a jurisdiction that does not recognize same-sex marriage.  In other words, the Treasury Department and IRS have adopted a “state of celebration” rule rather than a “state of residence” rule.  Click here for IRS answers to some frequently asked questions.

As a result, it will be possible for same-sex couples to be what we call “federally-recognized same-sex spouses” even if they are not treated as married in the state in which they currently reside.  That situation in fact, could become extremely common if same-sex couples travel to a jurisdiction solely to get married and obtain federal tax recognition of their marriage.  (See the Obergefell case, discussed in “Two Federal Courts Recognize Same-Sex Spousal Rights for Residents of States Not Permitting Same-Sex Marriage” as one recent example.)

This situation will require employers in all states – not just the 13 states (and the District of Columbia) that currently permit same-sex marriage – to prepare for same-sex couples to request spousal benefits under the employer’s various benefit programs, particularly those programs where preferential spousal treatment is required by federal law (e.g., spousal protection under qualified retirement plans, special enrollment and COBRA rights under health and welfare plans, etc.)  The IRS intends to issue further guidance on the retroactive implications of this position.

Additionally, this new guidance will allow same-sex spouses to claim refunds for open tax years for income and employment taxes they paid on imputed income on the value of health coverage.  Similarly, there is a procedure for employers to obtain employment tax refunds based on coverage provided to employees’ same-sex spouses.

Finally, note that the IRS guidance does not apply to registered domestic partners, civil unions or other similar relationships recognized under state law but that are not denominated as marriage under that state’s law.

Further McDermott guidance on this important development will be forthcoming shortly.  In the meantime, please contact the authors or your regular McDermott attorney if you have questions.

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Supreme Court Oral Arguments on DOMA, Proposition 8: Potential Employee Benefit Plan Implications

by Joseph S. Adams, Todd A. Solomon and Brian J. Tiemann

On March 26 and 27, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in cases challenging the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8.  A Supreme Court ruling in either case may have significant implications for employee benefit plans given the many federally mandated spousal benefits that currently do not extend to same-sex spouses in light of DOMA.

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