How the Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Ruling Impacts Employers

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June 26, 2015

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On June 26, 2015, the closing of Obergefell v. Hodges resulted in a landmark decision by the U.S Supreme Court: same-sex marriages must be licensed and recognized by all states in the nation. Although 37 states had previously legalized same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision will now have significant impact on the 13 states where same-sex marriage was not previously recognized.

Due to this ruling, employers may need to review a number of their practices to ensure they remain compliant with the new law. Two areas that will most likely be impacted will be employee benefits and leave of absence policies. In general, any policies that refer to or offer benefits to “spouses” must now recognize and include those couples in same-sex marriages. Many employers already use the term “spouse” in their policy documents, so while the letter of many employers’ handbooks and policies documents may not significantly change, employers may need to audit their procedures instead.

In the area of employee benefits, employers who offer health insurance to spouses should now make available the same benefits to same-sex spouses as well. Same- sex partners should also be supported in pension and retirement plans in the same manner as opposite-sex spouses.

Leaves of absence policies that mention spouses should also be reviewed. For example, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)—which previously had rules set forth to determine spousal leave eligibility in states where same-sex marriage had not been recognized—now has a simplified, broader application to all married couples. Employers should therefore review any state and federal laws that grant rights or protections to spouses.

As they review their procedures for handling benefits, leaves, and other policies, employers should take care to handle married couples of any orientation with the same set of administrative procedures. For example, an employer cannot require same-sex couples to furnish a marriage certificate before recognizing their spousal rights if they do not require the same from opposite-sex couples. Employers must take care to handle all married couples in the same manner to prevent discrimination.

Lastly, employers should be aware that while the Supreme Court’s decision changes the definition of “spouse” to include opposite- and same-sex marriages, domestic partnerships or civil unions technically do not constitute as marriage and are not necessarily granted the same rights, protection, or eligibility as same-sex spouses. Therefore, policies such as FMLA, whose definition of a covered spouse requires that the employee be married, do not offer rights to domestic partnerships or civil unions.

 

Action Items:

  1. Review benefit plan documents, forms, and handbook or policy documents to ensure spousal language applies to married couples of any orientation.
  2. Review all administrative procedures pertaining to spousal rights for consistency in practice.
  3. For further guidance, subscribers should call our HR On-Call Hotline at (888) 378-2456.

Disclaimer: This document is designed to provide general information and guidance concerning employment-related issues. It is presented with the understanding that ManagEase is not engaged in rendering any legal opinions. If a legal opinion is needed, please contact the services of your own legal adviser.

© 2015 ManagEase, Incorporated.

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