The United States Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage both settled some issues of employment benefits and left some in doubt. For the rights afforded by the Family and Medical Leave Act, the decision came at a very opportune time. The U. S. Department of Labor in February had enacted a rule that included same-sex spouse in the definition of “spouse” under the FMLA. The new rule stated that if a same-sex couple had a valid marriage license in their state of residence, they were entitled to the FMLA benefits.
When the Obergefell case was decided in June of this year, it gave full effect to the Department of Labor’s rule regarding FMLA coverage. Instead of providing limited coverage only to those in states where same -sex marriage was legal, it suddenly provided coverage to all legally married same-sex couples.
There are other employee benefit issues, however, that are not so clear despite the Obergefell decision. For instance, insurance and retirement benefits not required by law but offered as a matter of choice, and often administered by private companies, contain provisions for spouses. Medical coverage as a dependent and beneficiary designations for retirement funds and life insurance are examples of employee benefits that are not changed by Obergefell.
Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, private business retirement plans must provide survivor annuities for plan participants. But the Act permits private employers to decide who qualifies as an eligible dependent. This leaves the door open for continued exclusion of same sex spouses from benefits afforded to opposite -sex spouses.
Again, Obergefell does not result in an across the board change in all laws, rules, and regulations to eliminate the exclusion of same-sex spouses from employment benefits. That will be left up to the states and the federal government. Through legislative action and agency rule making, the remaining laws and rules that permit exclusion of, and discrimination against, persons based on sexual orientation will likely be altered in keeping with the Supreme Court’s landmark decision.
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