What the Supreme Court's Defense Of Marriage Act Ruling Means For Employers

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On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA"), which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The Court ruled that DOMA denied equal protection under federal law to same-sex couples lawfully married in New York, the District of Columbia, and the 11 other states that have enacted laws permitting same-sex marriages. The ruling will impact more than 1,000 federal laws that create rights based on marital status.

Over the coming days and weeks, we will be offering additional comments for employers concerning the impact of this ruling, particularly as the various federal agencies provide revised guidance on the laws they enforce that are presently in question in light of the Court's ruling. For example, the Court did not clarify the status under federal law of same-sex couples who were legally married in one state, but who reside or work in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriages as valid. The Court also did not comment on whether the ruling will apply retroactively. For its part, the Internal Revenue Service ("IRS") has issued a brief statement.

We are reviewing the important June 26 Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. We will be working with the Department of Treasury and Department of Justice, and we will move swiftly to provide revised guidance in the near future.

While we await the necessary administrative agency guidance, this chart provides an initial list of issues that employers should be prepared to address in states where same-sex marriage is legally recognized. Clearly, guidance from the IRS, Department of Labor ("DOL") and other agencies will be critical in determining precisely how and when changes should be implemented to existing policies, practices or benefits plans. In addition, future federal guidance may also require employers in non-recognizing states to consider these issues as well (e.g., to the extent same-sex couples live or work in those states).

Additionally, there are also issues regarding whether and how the Court's ruling might have retroactive application to benefits provided by employers, including the taxation of any such benefits. Moreover, the outcome of the Court's recent ruling may differ depending on the type of plan design presently in effect, and the degree of specificity of the definition of a "spouse" under existing plan arrangements.