The Supreme Court’s decision last week in Obergefell v. Hodges is big news: it held that the 14th Amendment requires states to license same-sex marriages and to recognize lawful out-of-state same-sex marriages, and thus legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country.  In a final section that begins with a philosopher’s take — “No union is more profound than marriage…”  — and ends with a jurist’s — “It is so ordered.” — the Court captured the attention of SCOTUS junkies and the rest of the country alike, leading to an outpouring of celebrations, headlines, social commentary and musing about the future.

Obergefell clearly is of cultural importance and has personal significance for many people, but what does it mean for private sector employers and their employee benefit plans?  Surprisingly little.  Private sector employee benefits are governed primarily by federal law, which had its watershed moment on this issue in 2013 when the Supreme Court required the federal government to recognize same-sex marriage in United States v. Windsor.


Continue Reading Marriage Equality Decision Is Big News (But May Have Little Impact on Private Sector Employee Benefit Plans)

A complaint filed this month against FedEx Corporation and its pension plan asks a court to apply the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor v. United States retroactively.  The case is Schuett v. FedEx Corporation.  The plaintiff is the surviving same-sex spouse of a FedEx pension plan participant who died six days before the Court issued its opinion in Windsor.

Case background.  The participant and the plaintiff began living as a couple in 1983.  The participant worked as a FedEx delivery driver for 26 years while the plaintiff stayed home to care for the couple’s two children.  The participant was diagnosed with cancer and learned on June 3, 2013, that her condition was terminal.  Already registered as domestic partners in California, the couple held a bedside wedding ceremony June 19, 2013, and the participant died the following day.

Six days later, the Supreme Court held in Windsor that the U.S. Constitution requires federal law to recognize state-sanctioned same-sex marriages.  The Court overturned section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), which defined marriage under federal law to exclude same-sex couples.  The same day, the Court decided Hollingsworth v. Perry, a procedural ruling that effectively reinstated same-sex marriage in California.  The plaintiff obtained a marriage certificate and a judicial order declaring the couple’s marriage legally valid as of June 19, 2013.
Continue Reading Lawsuit by Surviving Same-Sex Spouse Raises Windsor Retroactivity Question

When the Supreme Court held in United States v. Windsor last June that federal law recognizes same-sex marriages, the question arose whether this ruling would apply to tax-qualified retirement plans retroactively.  Last week, the IRS answered that question, in part. For tax-qualification purposes, plans must generally recognize the Windsor decision as of the date of the decision (June 26, 2013).  Plans could also voluntarily recognize the effect of the decision as of an earlier date.  The IRS, however, left open several questions, including how Windsor would apply with respect to a claim by a participant or beneficiary for retroactive benefits.  Below are highlights of the recent IRS guidance (consisting of Notice 2014-19 and FAQs).
Continue Reading Will Windsor Apply Retroactively to Retirement Plans? IRS Provides Some (But Not All) the Answers

The IRS issued a notice today setting forth special procedures by which employers may claim a refund of FICA taxes that were paid on employee benefits solely because of the application of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”).  Section 3 of DOMA prohibited the IRS from recognizing same-sex marriages for federal tax purposes and was struck down by the Supreme Court last June in a case called United States v. Windsor.  Prior to the Windsor decision, employers paid the employer’s share of FICA tax, withheld the employee’s share of FICA tax, and withheld income tax with respect to benefits for same-sex spouses of employees when the benefits could be provided tax-free to employees’ opposite-sex spouses.  In large part, the benefits at issue are health benefits, although certain tuition and other benefits also might have been taxed solely on account of DOMA.  Following the Windsor decision, refunds now may be obtained.
Continue Reading IRS Issues Special Administrative Procedures for DOMA Tax Refund Claims by Employers

The Department of Labor issued a technical release today addressing the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor on employee benefit plans.  The Windsor decision struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, thereby requiring the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages that are recognized under state law.  The IRS

The IRS issued guidance today defining same-sex marriage for purposes of federal tax rules.  Following the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor last June invalidating section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), federal law no longer limits the definition of marriage to opposite sex spouses.  However, the Windsor decision did not

More than a month after the Supreme Court struck down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) in United States v. Windsor, employers are still waiting for the federal government to answer fundamental questions about the rights of same-sex spouses in the post-DOMA world.  In the meantime, however, lower federal courts have begun to come to grips with these questions in decisions interpreting and applying the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision.

A significant issue for employers is whether they should determine a couple’s marital status based on the law of the state where the marriage was celebrated, even if the couple now resides in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage.  A number of states have “mini-DOMA” statutes declaring that the state will not recognize same-sex marriages, including marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

Although the Supreme Court held in Windsor that the federal government cannot refuse to recognize a same-sex marriage that is recognized under state law, the Supreme Court did not address section 2 of DOMA, which provides that a state is not required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in a different state.  As a result, Windsor leaves open the possibility that a same-sex couple’s marriage might be valid in some states and not in others.  A rule that requires plan sponsors to look to a couple’s state of residence rather than to the state of celebration to determine the validity of their marriage would create significant administrative burdens.
Continue Reading Federal Courts Decide Rights of Same-Sex Spouses After DOMA