Supreme Court Ruling on Legal Definition of ‘Spouse’ Requires Scrutiny of Employee Benefit Plans: Locke Lord Q&A Series

October 12, 2015

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v Hodges – in which all states must license a marriage between two people of the same sex and all states must recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another state – requires employers in all states to review their benefit plans and policies to ensure they are in compliance with applicable law, said Locke Lord Partners Lori Basilico and Ed Razim in a Q&A Series package addressing the most pressing issues in employee benefits, ERISA litigation, retirement plans and welfare benefit plans.

Locke Lord recently hosted its 27th annual Employee Benefits conference at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas that addressed these issues. Stuart Bumpas, Locke Lord Partner and Chair of the Firm’s Non-Profits Section, founded Locke Lord’s annual Employee Benefits Seminar and served as the moderator at this year’s event.

In this Q&A Series, Basilico, Chair of Locke Lord’s Employee Benefits Section, stated that “Employers who decline to offer health and welfare benefits to same-sex spouses, while offering such benefits to opposite-sex spouses, may face the risk of federal and state discrimination lawsuits, most notably under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Furthermore, employers that provide domestic partner benefits will need to decide whether to continue providing these benefits to same-sex partners in a civil union or domestic partnership, Basilico added.

Razim cautioned, “Employers should be aware of city, municipal or state law requirements that require employers to offer domestic partner benefits. There may be a risk of ‘reverse’ discrimination claims by unmarried opposite-sex partners if the employer provides domestic partner coverage for same-sex domestic partners only.”

“In light of this ruling, employers should undertake several courses of action,” Razim concluded in the Q&A. “For example, any reference in a plan document to a spouse being of the opposite sex will need to be deleted and employers will need to work with third-parties, including insurers or vendors, to determine whether any changes are required for compliance. They will also need to review payroll procedures to ensure the proper federal and state tax treatment of same-ex spousal benefits.”

The complete Q&A Series package on “Employee Benefits Today: Issues and Problems in the Current Environment” pulled from the Dallas event, includes the following features from Basilico and Razim.