The HR Specialist

DOMA strike-down will ripple through HR

06/27/2013

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 26 ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional, a decision that has already set in motion a sweeping rewrite of federal rules affecting employee benefits administration and payroll operations.

The Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor overturned Section 3 of DOMA—which since 1996 has defined marriage under federal law as the union of a man and woman—saying it violated the constitutional right to equal protection under the law. (United States v. Windsor, U.S. Supreme Court, 12–307, 2013)

It means that, in states where same-sex marriage is legal, all federal laws that provide benefits to married couples must now provide them to same-sex couples, too.

Same-sex marriage is legal, or soon will be, in California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Thirty states include bans on same-sex marriage in their constitutions.

Within minutes of the Court’s decision, President Obama ordered the Justice Department to begin reviewing the many federal rules that will need to be changed to accommodate same-sex couples.

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It remains to be seen how the Court’s decision will affect strictly federal laws, such as the tax code, FMLA and ERISA. However, the decision makes clear that federal laws that affect spousal rights must apply to legally married same-sex couples.

The HR effects could be far-reaching:

  • Immediately, you can expect employees who are legally married to same-sex partners to amend their W-4 forms, updating their tax filing status as “married.”
  • The FMLA will likely undergo changes. It provides time off to care for a spouse, and rules will need to be tweaked to clarify that same-sex-spouses are covered.
  • Employers that provide health benefits to employees’ spouses will have to cover legally married same-sex spouses. A June poll by work/life services provider Workplace Options found that 54% of working Americans believe employers should offer health insurance to same-sex partners or spouses.
  • The Supreme Court decision will also affect numerous other laws covering retirement benefits.

It’s too soon to speculate on exactly how upcoming changes will affect HR, but it’s certain that they will. Federal agencies such as the Department of Labor and EEOC that enforce labor and employment laws are likely already working on updating their regulations and employer guidance.

Details, details: Here's a partial list of HR issues the Windsor decision will affect:

  • COBRA benefits
  • Special enrollment rights under HIPAA and the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
  • Dependent health coverage for same-sex partners’ children under the ACA
  • Leave under the FMLA
  • Any pension provision in ERISA that mentions spouses
  • 401(k) plan provisions that mention spouses (e.g., survivor benefits or hardship withdrawals).
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