[author: Matthew Dulac]
Before the United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) in United States v. Windsor, the federal definition of “marriage” was limited to that between a man and a woman. For that reason, same-sex couples in registered domestic partnerships and civil unions could not receive spousal benefits under federal law. This has not changed post-Windsor, since same-sex and opposite-sex married couples are now afforded (nearly all of) the same treatment under federal law. That is, federal spousal benefits are only extended to “married” couples – whether same-sex or opposite-sex – and not to domestic partners.
In fact, several federal agencies have clarified that “marriage” means only couples who are actually married under the law, regardless of sexual orientation, and not those in registered domestic partnership or civil unions. For example, in September 2013, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) stated in Revenue Ruling 2013-17 that, for tax purposes, the term “marriage” includes marriage between individuals of the same sex but does not include registered domestic partnerships.
Similarly—and just two days after the IRS—the US Department of Labor (DOL) released its own statement in the DOL Guidance to Employee Benefit Plans 2013-04 that it would interpret “spouse” as any individual lawfully married under any state law, and “marriage” to include a same-sex marriage that is legally recognized as a marriage under any state law. The DOL also stated, however, that the terms “spouse” and “marriage” do not include individuals in a relationship that is not denominated a “marriage” under state law, such as a domestic partnership.
In sum, even though same-sex marriages now are eligible for many of the same federal benefits as opposite-sex marriages, domestic partnerships remain unrecognized for the purpose of receiving federal spousal benefits.