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Gay spouses win employee benefits

By Jennie L. Phipps ·
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Posted: 5 pm ET

Gay employees and their legally married spouses can now share fully in employer-provided benefits plans.

That includes health insurance, 401(k) plans and old-fashioned defined benefit pensions set up under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, known as ERISA. The couples will be eligible for benefits even if they live in a state that doesn't recognize their marriage, thanks to new guidance issued this week by the U.S. Department of Labor in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision striking down most provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The technical decision said: "A rule that recognizes marriages that are valid in the state in which they were celebrated, regardless of the married couple's state of domicile, provides a uniform rule of recognition that can be applied with certainty by stakeholders, including employers, plan administrators, participants and beneficiaries."

Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said in a statement that the Labor Department will issue additional guidance on this topic over the next few months, but he added, "This decision represents a historic step toward equality for all American families, and I have 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."

Some observers of this decision are skeptical that the government can actually carry it out. Todd Sandstrom, a case design specialist for Longfellow Benefits who is particularly knowledgeable about same-sex marriage issues, says, "In states like Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma that are dead-set against same-sex marriage, companies can decide to follow state law and have all the backing that they need. There is nothing that forces them to not discriminate."

He believes that this issue will eventually be returned to the Supreme Court. "If you live in one of the 13 states or the District of Columbia where same-sex marriage is legal, then everything is cut-and-dried, but in many of the other states, it's a huge affront and they are going to do their best to fight it to the end."

Welcome to modern American retirement planning, where nothing is simple.

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