HR Effects of Same-sex Marriage Legalization

Tuesday September 8th, 2015

HR-Effects-of-Same-Sex-MarriageNow that the U.S. Supreme Court has legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country, employers need to be aware of the effects on employment laws and regulations. The June 26, 2015, decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case specifically ruled that the denial of marriage licenses and recognition to same-sex couples violates the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Employers’ human resource departments need to review their policies to determine the impact of this ruling on their companies’ policies.

On July 9, 2015, U.S. Attorney General Lynch announced the implementation of federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples nationwide:

Following the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Obergefell that every couple has the same right to participate in the institution of marriage, whether the partners are of the same-sex or opposite sexes, I directed Justice Department staff to work with the agencies to ensure that the ruling be given full effect across the federal government. Thanks to their leadership and the quick work of the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, today I am proud to announce that the critical programs for veterans and elderly and disabled Americans, which previously could not give effect to the marriages of couples living in states that did not recognize those marriages, will now provide federal recognition for all marriages nationwide. The agencies are currently working toward providing guidance to implement this change in law. Just over a year ago, Attorney General Holder announced that agencies across the federal government had implemented the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision by treating married same-sex couples the same as married opposite-sex couples to the greatest extent possible under the law as it then stood. With the Supreme Court’s new ruling that the Constitution requires marriage equality, we have now taken the further step of ensuring that all federal benefits will be available equally to married couples in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Territories. The department will continue to work across the administration to fulfill our commitment to equal treatment for all Americans, including equal access to the benefits of marriage that the Obergefell decision guarantees.

Prior to Obergefell, same-sex marriage was legal to at least some degree in 38 states, one territory (Guam) and the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court had struck down the law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage in its ruling in the United States v. Windsor case on June 26, 2013. Many companies already made major changes to their employee policies and procedures following that Windsor ruling in 2013.

If not already implemented, the following actions should be taken by employers:

  • Amend definitions of spouse as needed in company policies and materials
  • Reprogram tax reporting systems
  • Update enrollment forms, distribution election packages, tax notices, beneficiary designation forms and other documents
  • Have employees who are married to same-sex partners update their W-4 forms to the married filing status.

If your company offers health insurance benefits to spouses, make sure to extend those benefits to same-sex spouses. Do not neglect to include same-sex spouses within the defined category of family member in family leave policies. Same-sex partners must also be covered in pension and retirement plans in the same manner as opposite-sex spouses.

One complicating factor is due to some employers having chosen to offer additional domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples during the time when their states did not recognize them as married. Those employers need to decide whether to retain this benefit and, if so, whether to also extend it to opposite-sex, unmarried couples or to eliminate domestic partner health coverage in favor of full spousal benefits.

It appears that much of the heavy lifting of employer recognition of same-sex marriage has already been done. Companies that have not yet made the necessary adjustments are advised to do so as soon as possible to avoid any of the negative repercussions of noncompliance.

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