Post-Windsor Court Decision Requires Plan to Recognize Same-Sex Marriages from Other States

We are beginning to see the first lower court applications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision United States v. Windsor, which struck the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) provision limiting marriage to opposite sex couples as unconstitutional.

In Cozen O’Connor v. Tobits, a federal court in Pennsylvania held that Windsor requires recognition of a valid same-sex marriage from another jurisdiction for purposes of benefits distribution pursuant to ERISA.

Following the participant’s death, the issue before the court was whether her same-sex spouse was considered her “Spouse” in accordance with the Plan language.  The Plan contained a choice of law provision that made reference to Pennsylvania law, which has a state DOMA statute.  The couple resided in Illinois, which recognized their legal same-sex marriage from Canada. The court reasoned that post-Windsor, where a state has recognized a marriage as valid, the Constitution requires that the federal laws and regulations acknowledge the marriage.

The court found it did not need to decide any issues of Pennsylvania law, because ERISA preempted Pennsylvania law entirely:  “The issue here regards the definition of “Spouse” as supplied by ERISA—a federal regulation.  For the purposes of determining the definition of “Spouse,” if Courts were required to look at the state in which the policy was drafted, this could permit Plan administrators and drafters to forum shop among those jurisdictions with state DOMA statutes, in an effort to avoid providing benefits to same-sex couples with otherwise valid marriages.  At its heart, ERISA was enacted to establish national uniformity among benefit plans.”

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

By Stephanie L. Marn | August 26, 2013

Legal Developments