How Will DOMA Ruling Impact Employee Health Care Benefits?

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, was unconstitutional. This decision will affect the economy as it will impact things like employee benefit packages. The ruling ensures that same-sex couples will have the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples, because it requires same-sex couples wed under state law to be recognized by the federal government as legal.

“People who are married will be treated as married for the 1,100 federal rights and benefits that apply to all married couples,” said Hunter Carter, a partner at the law firm Arent Fox in New York. “The most important are social security, taxes, federal pensions, federal worker benefits for federal employees and, of course, immigration.”

Same-sex couples living anywhere in the U.S. will now qualify for federal-employee benefits if they have a marriage license from any of the 13 states that recognize same-sex marriage, as well as Washington, D.C. For employers, the decision means that any federal benefits and laws that would apply to an employee’s spouse now extends to same-sex spouses in legally recognized marriages. The big ones that employers need to know are health and retirement benefits, taxes, and family leave.

Employers who have, even before the ruling, offered same-sex couples health insurance benefits were obligated to consider those as income to the employee, since “technically they were giving something of value to someone who wasn’t related to them” said Boston attorney Scott Squillace, who advises same-sex couples. From now on, federal tax law will think of those benefits as the same as an employee’s own health insurance, which means they’re tax-free for the employee.

“The rulings take effect immediately (possibly even retroactively). If marital status affects the delivery of benefits to an employee’s same-sex spouse or that spouse’s child, employers may need to amend the plan’s ‘spouse’ definition; reprogram tax reporting systems; and update enrollment forms, distribution election packages, tax notices, beneficiary designation forms, SPDs [summary plan descriptions], and the like,” according to Mercer.

Before the Supreme Court’s decision, DOMA guaranteed that benefits were limited for lawfully married same-sex couples. Now, the right to file joint federal taxes can save same-sex couples thousands of dollars, social security benefits will be available to same-sex spouses, and same-sex spouses won’t be taxed on the inheritance of their spouse’s estates.