A few weeks after the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) stated that it will apply a “place of celebration” rule in recognizing same-sex spouses for purposes of the Internal Revenue Code (including with respect to employee benefit plans), the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced today that it too will interpret the term “spouse” as including a same-sex spouse legally married in any state or foreign jurisdiction that recognizes the marriage, even if the couple resides in a state that does not permit or recognize same-sex marriage, for purposes of ERISA, the Internal Revenue Code and governing DOL regulations. (DOL Technical Release No. 2013-04.) Like the IRS, the DOL confirmed that this interpretation does not include individuals (of the same or opposite sex) in a domestic partnership or civil union, even if the partners have the same rights as married couples under the applicable state law.
Although the Release does not provide detailed guidance for employee benefit plans (e.g., with regard to COBRA or HIPAA), the DOL notes that it intends to issue further guidance addressing specific provisions of ERISA and its regulations. In addition, the Secretary of Labor stated in the related press release that he has “directed the department’s agency heads to ensure that they are implementing the decision in a way that provides maximum protection for workers and their families.”
The rule announced in the Technical Release is welcome news for employers and other benefit plan sponsors, as it “provides a uniform rule of recognition that can be applied with certainty by stakeholders, including employers, plan administrators, participants, and beneficiaries.” As the DOL acknowledges, if employee benefit plans were required to follow a rule based on the state of the employee’s residence, there would be significant challenges and burdens in employee benefit plan administration, particularly for employers operating in more than one state. The same would be true for multiemployer plans covering participants across the country.