The Supreme Court’s decisions on same-sex marriage have generated a deluge of commentary by many people on both sides of the issue. Long after the rhetoric dies down, one of those decisions, the one striking down DOMA, will have lingering effects for many businesses.
That decision means that the federal government must recognize as married same-sex couples who are lawfully married in their state. (The exact status of couples who were married in a state recognizing same-sex marriages and later moved to one that does not is as yet uncertain.) Since some aspects of employee benefits are governed by federal law, employers may expect some changes.
As a matter of just a few examples, group health insurance plans, which are governed by the federal ERISA law, will now have to recognize lawfully-married same-sex couples as spouses, and extend coverage to them as family members. Same-sex spouses will also have expanded rights under COBRA. Employers and plan administrators will have to make sure that lawfully married same-sex spouses receive beneficiary rights under pension plans, 401(k)s, life or disability insurance policies, and more.
These are only examples. The list of possible changes in states recognizing same-sex marriages may be long and seem burdensome. But it may in fact turn out to lead to a reduction in paperwork. That is because employers will no longer have to treat same-sex married couples under one set of rule for state law benefits and another set of rules for federal ones.