Benefits Council urges feds to clarify DOMA ruling

Although the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, important questions remain unanswered about same-sex marriages and employees benefits.

That’s why the American Benefits Council has written to several federal agencies, urgently requesting guidance on behalf of its members.

The council shot off a no-nonsense missive to the U.S. Treasury Department, Labor Department, Health and Human Services Department and Internal Revenue Service, “requesting interim guidance or transition relief” from Windsor so plan managers could achieve some level of comfort around their treatment of same-sex spouses.

The biggest question is whether the state in which a same-sex marriage takes place is the only state where such couples have benefits plan-related rights, or if all such couples must be covered as married couples regardless of where they reside.

“Much of the current uncertainty stems from the fact that existing law is unclear as to whether, for purposes of the federal laws governing employer-sponsored benefits, a ‘spouse’ only encompasses an employee's same-sex spouse that resides in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage or whether such term includes a same-sex spouse subject to a valid marriage license regardless of the spouse's current state of domicile,” the letter said.

“Any rule that is adopted must allow for the uniform administration of plans at the federal level.”

The council's letter cited several other areas of uncertainty:

  • Whether the change in law could require an employer to provide retroactive benefits or re-administer benefits previously provided under the terms of a plan; 
  • The need for additional time for plans to comply with the new legal and regulatory landscape; 
  • The treatment of employer-provided health coverage as imputed income; and, 
  • The ability of affected employees and employers alike to seek refunds of federal income or payroll taxes paid for health coverage attributable to an employee's same-sex spouse. 

"The court's rejection of DOMA freed employers from numerous financial and administrative burdens, but created innumerable other questions that require prompt answers," American Benefits Council President James A. Klein said. "We urge the federal agencies to issue guidance as soon as possible."

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