On Friday, June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and held that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. The decision follows two years after the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that the federal government would recognize same-sex marriage for federal law purposes.
What is the effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling?
Hereafter, all states must issue same-sex marriage licenses and must recognize same-sex marriages, whether formed in that state or in other jurisdictions. The decision will have the greatest impact in states that had not previously recognized same-sex marriage, but it will also eliminate much of the patchwork of laws that multi-state employers had faced when dealing with benefits for same-sex couples.
What should employers do now?
Employers contemplating providing only opposite-sex spousal benefits should be in close contact with their legal counsel regarding the risks associated with such a decision. Further, it will be very important to ensure that “spouse” is defined with precision in the employee benefit plan materials. The Court’s decision does not directly affect civil unions and domestic partnerships. Benefit plan references to those arrangements, plan references to the word "spouse" and plan provisions referring to the rights of spouses should all be reviewed to ensure compliance with the law and to ensure that the terms used in the plan documents represent the employer’s intent.