How the Marriage Equality Decisions Will Impact Benefit Plans


In a pair of landmark 5-4 rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) on Fifth Amendment grounds and denied the California Proposition 8 Appeal by finding the Plaintiffs had no legal standing. In United States v. Windsor, Case No. 12-307, Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, wrote that DOMA was “invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity.  By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”   

In Hollingsworth v. Perry, Case No. 12-144, a different majority led by Chief Justice Roberts found that the sponsors who brought the appeal on Prop. 8, California’s ban on same-sex marriage, had no legal standing to represent the state in appealing the prior rulings finding Prop. 8 unconstitutional.  The sponsors who brought the appeal did so after Governor Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris declined to defend Prop. 8.  By deciding the case on procedural standing, the Court declined to issue a ruling on the constitutionality of Prop. 8 and instead reinstated the August 2010 U.S. District Court decision of Judge Vaughn Walker that found that Prop. 8 was discriminatory based on sexual orientation and gender. The Ninth Circuit has lifted its stay of Walker’s August 2010 decision, and Governor Brown has directed the California Department of Public Health to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.Same-sex marriages are now legal in the State of California.

Health Plans and Pension Plans must treat same-sex spouses the same as opposite-sex spouses in every respect, including but not limited to:

  • Eligibility for spousal health plan coverage;
  • Eligibility for COBRA continuation coverage;
  • Beneficiary designations and application of plan provisions
  • Pre-tax dollars can now pay for same-sex spouses’ contributions, so there need be no further computation of ‘imputed income’ to participants for same-sex partners’ benefit contributions;
  • Eligibility for joint and survivor pensions;
  • Spousal consent requirements;
  • Continuation of health plan coverage for employees caring for same-sex spouses under the Family Medical Leave Act; and
  • Dissolution and qualified domestic relations orders (QDROs)

For more information about the specific impact of the marriage equality decisions on your Plan, please contact your Trust Fund counsel.

By Conchita Lozano-Batista and Kristina Zinnen | July 1, 2013

Legal Developments