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ERISA rights extended to all married same-sex couples

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Legally married same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights and protections as opposite-sex couples under employer-sponsored benefit plans governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, regardless of where they live, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

In a guidance document released Wednesday, Labor Department officials said the federal government's definitions of the terms “spouse” and “marriage” under Title 1 of ERISA have been expanded to include gay and lesbian couples lawfully married in a U.S. state or territory, or a foreign country, even if the state the couple lives in does not permit or recognize same-sex marriages.

The Labor Department's guidance document is the latest in a series of revisions and updates to federal regulations relative to marital status released in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court's June 26 decision to overturn Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had previously prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages by confining the definition of marriage to the union of a man and a woman.

The revised rules do not apply to domestic partnerships, civil unions or other legal arrangements recognized by certain states.

“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,” Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said in a statement Wednesday. “The department plans to issue additional guidance in the coming months as we continue to consult with the Department of Justice and other federal agencies to implement the decision.”

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The rule revision applies to all employer-sponsored retirement plans governed under Title 1 of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code, as well as federal regulations establishing the jurisdiction of the Employee Benefits Security Administration to set and enforce minimum standards for employee pension plans.

Title 1 of ERISA also encompasses the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which includes rules regarding plan eligibility for all “similarly situated” beneficiaries, special enrollment rights and discrimination against individuals based on health status-related factors.

In their guidance document, Labor Department officials said limiting the expansion of eligibility for ERISA rights and protections to legally married same-sex couples living only in states that recognize their marriage would have made compliance with the regulations much more complicated for private employers and plan fiduciaries than a uniform expansion of eligibility in all states.

“A rule for employee benefit plans based on state of domicile would raise significant challenges for employers that operate or have employees (or former employees) in more than one state or whose employees move to another state while entitled to benefits,” Labor Department officials said in the guidance document. “Furthermore, substantial financial and administrative burdens would be placed on those employers, as well as the administrators of employee benefit plans.”