The Impact of the Unconstitutionality of DOMA on benefit plans

The Supreme Court of the United States, in its decision handed down on June 26, 2013, found the Defense of Marriage Act, which was enacted in 1996, violates the U.S. Constitution.  The decision will have wide-ranging implications for individuals and employers, and we will begin to see some of these immediately.

Same sex married couples must now be afforded the same treatment under federal law as any married couple, at least in states that recognize their marriages.  Retirement plans governed by ERISA, a federal statute, must now recognize legally married same sex couples for all purposes in plan administration, including spousal consent for distributions, loans and beneficiary designations, where required, death benefits, QDROs, annuity payment options, spousal rollovers and death benefits.  Additionally, legally married spouses will be eligible to participate in a myriad of welfare benefit plans, including health insurance plans, with no adverse federal tax consequences.

We expect to see government agencies issue guidance on many of the changes resulting from this ruling over the next several months.  All employers should be sure to consider, in consultation with their benefits counsel and other employee benefits advisors, the impact that the death of DOMA has on their plan administration, and be sure that they are taking all necessary steps to follow the law.

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