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U.S. Dept. of Labor Provides Guidance to Employee Benefit Plans On Definition of “Spouse” and “Marriage” Under ERISA and Recent Supreme Court Decision

Recently, in United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional. This ruling impacts the definition and application of the terms “spouse” and “marriage” in federal statutes, and has implications on federal benefits and obligations.

Under Section 3 of DOMA, in any Federal statute, “spouse” refers to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife, and “marriage” refers to a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife. Due to the ruling in United States v. Windsor, the U.S. Department of Labor has issued a Technical Release to provide guidance to employee benefit plans, plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries and plan participants and beneficiaries.

According to the new guidelines, the term “spouse” will refer to, “any individuals who are lawfully married under any state law, including individuals married to a person of the same sex who were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, but who are domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriages.” Additionally, the term “marriage” will include a same-sex marriage that is legally recognized as a marriage under any state law. However, the terms “spouse” and “marriage” do not include, “individuals in a formal relationship recognized by a state that is not denominated a marriage under state law, such as a domestic partnerships or a civil union.”

These changes will affect employee benefit plans, as these terms appear in numerous provisions of title I of the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). Future guidance addressing specific provisions of ERISA and its regulations will be available at:

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