Tag Archives: DOMA

Retirement Plans Must be Amended to Recognize Same-Sex Marriages by December 31, 2014

Contributed by Kelly Haab-Tallitsch

The IRS released Notice 2014-19 earlier this month, answering many of the open questions on the application of the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor to qualified retirement plans.  Although the IRS provided initial guidance on the impact on employee benefit plans shortly after the Court found the Defense of Marriage Act’s (DOMA) ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, many details specific to retirement plans were still outstanding.

Effective Date and Retroactivity

The recent release reaffirms that qualified retirement plans are required to recognize same-sex marriages as of the date of the Windsor decision (June 26, 2013), and confirms that plans will not be penalized for not recognizing them earlier. Plans are required to recognize same-sex marriages using the “state of celebration rule” beginning on September 16, 2013, the date of the prior IRS Notice 2013-17. Under this rule, a plan must recognize a same-sex marriage if the individuals were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, even if they are currently living in a state that does not. Plans that were relying on the laws of the state of residency, instead of the state of celebration of the marriage, prior to the September 16, 2013 notice will not be penalized.

Plans may choose to recognize same-sex marriages retroactively prior to June 26, 2013, and may choose to recognize them for some or all purposes, provided the plan is amended to specify the effective date and the specific rules that will be applied. For example, a plan may choose to apply Windsor to its joint and survivor annuity requirements and only with respect to participants with benefit commencement dates as of a certain date.

Plan Amendments

Retirement plans only need to be amended to comply with Windsor if the current plan terms are inconsistent with the decision or the IRS guidance. For example, a plan that specifies that a marriage is between two individuals of the opposite sex will need to be amended, but a plan that uses the term “spouse” or “legally married spouse” may not require an amendment. A clarifying amendment is permissible, however, and may be helpful to plan administrators.

The deadline to adopt a required Windsor plan amendment is December 31, 2014 for most plans. The notice provides that a plan amendment must be adopted to bring a plan into compliance with Windsor by the later of December 31, 2014 or the otherwise applicable deadline for plan amendments (i.e. the later of the end of the plan year in which the change is first effective or the due date of the employer’s tax return for the tax year that includes the date the change is first effective).

To ensure your retirement plan remains compliant, plan language should be reviewed in the next few months to determine if a December 31, 2014 amendment is needed.

The Supreme Court Strikes Down DOMA – What Does It Mean For Employers?

Contributed by Rebecca Dobbs Bush

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. Windsor, issued a landmark decision striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. Now the federal government must acknowledge marriages between same-sex couples. What does this mean for employers? Well, it depends on what states you operate in….

If you live in a state like Illinois that DOES NOT recognize same-sex marriage:

The short answer is, no one knows. While Illinois does allow same-sex couples to enter into a civil union, being in a civil union is essentially the same as being unmarried for purposes of federal law. The decision of the Supreme Court now arguably makes civil unions even more unequal to marriage.

While civil unions are not affected by the decision, it is unclear whether employers will be required or permitted to recognize same-sex spouses of employees living in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages for purposes of federal employment laws such as ERISA, COBRA, FMLA, etc. In other words, what are an employer’s obligations if they operate in Illinois and have an employee who entered into a same-sex marriage in Massachusetts?

The decision references the fact that over 1,000 federal laws contain provisions specifically applicable to spouses that may be affected and should be coordinated. Until we receive additional guidance from the relevant agencies, employers in states such as Illinois are in a state of uncertainty. For example, the IRS generally defers to state of residence and not state of celebration for purposes of determining tax filing status and whether employer provided benefits should be considered imputed income. However, some federal laws, such as ERISA, do not specifically reference which state law should be given deference. In light of the stated views of the Obama administration, many are anticipating an Executive Order directing federal agencies to defer to the state of celebration for purposes of determining whether couples are married. In the meantime, employers operating in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage will need to wait for further clarification.

If you operate in a state that DOES recognize same-sex marriage:

Currently 13 states and the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage, including: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, California, Vermont, New Hampshire, Washington D.C., New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, and Washington State.

For employers operating in states where same-sex marriage is recognized:

  • Same-sex and opposite-sex spouses will need to be treated the same for purposes of benefits extended to spouses.
  • Employees will not have to pay federal taxes for imputed income tied to an employer’s contribution to the same-sex spouse’s welfare benefit coverage. And, these same employees should be permitted to make their contributions towards these spousal benefits on a pre-tax basis under a Section 125 plan.
  • COBRA continuation will need to be offered to same-sex spouses.
  • Same-sex spouses will need to be treated the same as an opposite-sex spouse for purposes of an employer’s pension or 401(k) plan.
  • Employees will be able to access FMLA leave to care for an ill same-sex spouse the same as they would for an opposite-sex spouse.

Regardless of the state you operate in:

Every employer should review their existing benefit plan documents to verify how “spouse” is defined and to determine whether amendments need to be made to existing documents to accurately reflect the employer’s intent and actual administration of the plan.