Employers and other employee benefit plan sponsors, benefit plan fiduciaries, and their advisors and service providers should review and update their health and employee benefit plan’s definitions of “spouse,” “marriage” and “dependent” in light of new guidance from the Department of Labor Wage & Hour Division (WHD) guidance under the Family & Medical Leave Act and the Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) guidance under the under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) on the effect of the Supreme Court’s finding of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor on their family leave and employee benefit plan obligations to employees involved in same-sex domestic partnership relationships. When doing so, employers and employee benefit plan sponsors, fiduciaries and administrators also should keep in mind that the Defense of Marriage Act ruling is only one of a number of recent developments fueling an evolution in the traditional concepts of marriage, dependent and family and their effect on employment and employee benefit policies and practices. Accordingly, when reviewing these arrangements, employers and their benefit plans need to be reviewed and updated to keep abreast of and comply with these evolving practices and standards.
On June 26, 2013, the Windsor decision struck down the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to legally married, same-sex couples.
In Technical Release No. 2013-04 published on September 18, 2013, the EBSA states the Department plans to issue additional guidance in the coming months as it consults with the Department of Justice and other federal agencies to implement the Winsor decision. In the meanwhile, however, EBSA says that in general, the terms “spouse” and “marriage” in Title I of ERISA and in related department regulations should be read to include same-sex couples legally married in any state or foreign jurisdiction that recognizes such marriages, regardless of where they currently live.
The EBSA guidance follows the publication by the WHD of guidance on the effect of the Windsor decision on the family leave responsibilities of employers covered by the FMLA to employees involved in same-sex domestic partnership relationships in Fact Sheet #28F: Qualifying Reasons for Leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act published by the WHD earlier in August. In that guidance, WHD updated its definition of “spouse” for purposes of the FMLA to mean “husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the state where the employee resides, including “common law” marriage and same-sex marriage.”
The Windsor decision and these new pieces of related guidance reflect the evolving nature of marriage and family increasingly incorporated into federal and state employment and employee benefit law. While the Labor Department promises that additional guidance on the Defense of Marriage Act will be forthcoming the future, the new guidance makes clear that employers should review their existing employment and employee benefit plans in light of the Windsor decision and evolving precedent. Employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsors, fiduciaries and administrators should not assume that existing definitions will have the intended effect or be compliant. Rather, they should assess the existing language in light of the decision and the evolving guidance and make appropriate adjustments as necessary to ensure that their plans properly document the desired treatment in accordance with the evolving guidance and precedent. In doing so, employers also should review other definitions of dependent, kin, family and related concepts to ensure they are up to date with the FMLA, the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act, the Defense of Marriage Act-related guidance and other current regulations.
For Help or More Information
If you need help understanding or dealing with these impending notification requirements, with other 2014 health plan decision-making or preparation, or with reviewing and updating, administering or defending your group health or other employee benefit, human resources, insurance, health care matters or related documents or practices, please contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Council, immediate past Chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current Co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Vice-Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefits Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Ms. Stamer is recognized, internationally, nationally and locally for her more than 25 years of work, advocacy, education and publications on cutting edge health and managed care, employee benefit, human resources and related workforce, insurance and financial services, and health care matters.
A board certified labor and employment attorney widely known for her extensive and creative knowledge and experienced with these and other employment, employee benefit and compensation matters, Ms. Stamer continuously advises and assists employers, employee benefit plans, their sponsoring employers, fiduciaries, insurers, administrators, service providers, insurers and others to monitor and respond to evolving legal and operational requirements and to design, administer, document and defend medical and other welfare benefit, qualified and non-qualified deferred compensation and retirement, severance and other employee benefit, compensation, and human resources, management and other programs and practices tailored to the client’s human resources, employee benefits or other management goals. A primary drafter of the Bolivian Social Security pension privatization law, Ms. Stamer also works extensively with management, service provider and other clients to monitor legislative and regulatory developments and to deal with Congressional and state legislators, regulators, and enforcement officials about regulatory, investigatory or enforcement concerns.
Recognized in Who’s Who In American Professionals and both an American Bar Association (ABA) and a State Bar of Texas Fellow, Ms. Stamer serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Employee Benefits News, HR.com, Insurance Thought Leadership, Solutions Law Press, Inc. and other publications, and active in a multitude of other employee benefits, human resources and other professional and civic organizations. She also is a widely published author and highly regarded speaker on these matters. Her insights on these and other matters appear in the Bureau of National Affairs, Spencer Publications, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, Modern and many other national and local publications. You can learn more about Ms. Stamer and her experience, review some of her other training, speaking, publications and other resources, and register to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns from Ms. Stamer here.
If you found this of interest, you may also be interested in the following recent publications by Ms. Stamer published by Solutions Law Press, Inc.:
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©2013 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer. Non-exclusive license to republish granted to Solutions Law Press, Inc. All other rights reserved.