If you are an employee in Chicago, chances are your employer provides you with one or more employee benefits governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), such as retirement benefits, health insurance, disability insurance, or life insurance, among others. This law, and its affiliated regulations, have been using the terms “marriage” and “spouse” for decades, since the Act passage in 1974. But they never defined what those terms mean. In light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, No. 12-307 (June 26, 2013), which invalidated a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act, the Department of Labor decided to clarify what those terms mean in the context of ERISA.
On September 18, 2013, the Department issued technical release 2013-04, wherein it stated “The term ‘spouse’ will be read to refer to any individuals who are lawfully married under any state law, including individuals married to a person of the same sex who were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, but who are domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriages. Similarly, the term ‘marriage’ will be read to include a same-sex marriage that is legally recognized as a marriage under any state law.”
There are nevertheless limitations to these enhanced protections under ERISA. Not all benefit plans are required to provide any benefits to a “spouse.” While most pension plans must make spouses beneficiaries by law, plans that are not required to make a “spouse” a beneficiary by law may still have flexibility to define within the plan what a “spouse” means. Also, the technical release expressly states that “marriage” and “spouse” will not encompass other formal relationships recognized by states which do not constitute a “marriage” in that state. An example would be civil unions recognized in Illinois and other states. Nevertheless, this is a significant step forward in employee benefits law.
If you have questions regarding what benefits you or your same-sex spouse may be entitled to under an employee benefit plan, contact an experienced ERISA lawyer.