Labor Department issues guidance on marriages of same-sex couples and employee benefit plans

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force welcomes the new guidance by the U.S. Department of Labor that treats married same-sex couples equally when it comes to employee benefits plans, regardless of where they live.

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez

“We thank Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez for his leadership on this critical issue for thousands of same-sex couples and their families”, said Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “This decision is a huge victory for all families, as it affirms equality and fairness for same-sex couples who until recently were denied these benefits.”

This is a new guidance to plans, plan sponsors, fiduciaries, participants and beneficiaries on the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor impact on the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The release states that, in general, the terms “spouse” and “marriage” in Title I of ERISA and in related department regulations should be read to include same-sex couples legally married in any state or foreign jurisdiction that recognizes such marriages, regardless of where they currently live.

The most common benefit for spouses in pension plans involves payments to surviving spouses after the death of a recipient. According to the new guidance, employers can no longer discriminate against same-sex couples in distribution of these surviving spouse benefits.

It also means that regardless of where couples live, the pension plan or 401(k) plan must extend benefits to same-sex couples to the same extent it would to opposite-sex couples.

On June 26, 2013, the Windsor decision struck down the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to legally married, same-sex couples.