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DOMA ruling leaves benefit managers uncertain of its effect on plans

DOMA ruling leaves benefit managers uncertain of its effect on plans

Though most organizations support the U.S. Supreme Court's partial overturn of the Defense of Marriage Act, a substantial majority remain unsure of how the court's ruling will affect their employee benefit plans, according to new survey data.

More than 77% of 915 benefit managers, human resource professionals and industry experts polled indicated that they reacted positively to the high court's June 26 ruling that declared unconstitutional Section 3 of DOMA, according to survey results released Tuesday by the Brookfield, Wis.-based International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans.

Prior to the court's historic decision, Section 3 of DOMA had defined marriage strictly as the union between a man and a woman for all federal purposes. Absent that provision, legally married same-sex couples' eligibility for federally regulated employment benefits — including employer-sponsored health and retirement plans governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, as well as continuing health care coverage for workers and their families under COBRA and guaranteed leave for family and medical emergencies under the Family and Medical Leave Act — will be determined at the state level.

This month, the Department of Labor updated several of its guidance documents regarding emergency leave benefits under FMLA to reflect the Supreme Court's decision, extending FMLA benefits to legally wed gay and lesbian couples residing in states that permit same-sex marriage.

However, private employers that are subject to ERISA are waiting for federal regulators to determine which state's law will control an employer's obligation to extend their group health and retirement plans to gay and lesbian married couples. Until that guidance is published, 66% of organizations polled in the IFEBP's survey said they are at least somewhat reluctant to make changes to their benefit strategies, with more than 39% indicating they are in “wait-and-see mode.”


In July, the American Benefits Council published a letter urging regulators to adopt a “state of celebration” rule — which would recognize all legally performed marriages, regardless of the couple's state of residency — for any mandated expansion of private employers' coverage obligations to their employees' same-sex spouses.

As of Aug. 6, the date that the survey was completed, less than 13% of organizations polled said they have begun adjusting their benefit plans to conform to the court's ruling, according to the IFEBP's survey.

Nearly 55% of organizations surveyed already offer benefits to same-sex spouses, domestic partners and/or civil unions, which larger employers more likely to sponsor benefits for same-sex partners than smaller benefits.

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