The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, in which it held that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, made headlines.  This decision has a practical impact on employers – particularly on those with operations in states that to date had not recognized the validity of same-sex marriages.

There are a number of employment rights and benefits that are affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling. These include the following:

  • Federal Family and Medical Leave Act leave, as well as family/medical-type leaves under State laws. The Department of Labor had previously announced a “place of celebration” rule, meaning that if the marriage is valid in the State in which the marriage took place, the FMLA will protect an employee needing leave to care for his or her spouse, regardless of where the employee lives (including in those States that do not recognize same-sex marriage). This ruling, however, means that leave rights under State laws, which may not have previously applied, must be extended to same-sex spouses as well. This includes such statutorily-provided leaves such as sick leave, family and medical leave, domestic violence leave, military family leaves, and Flexible Leave Act leaves (which enable employees to use paid leave for purposes of family illness).
  • Employment policies. If your policies provide other rights for spouses, such as bereavement leave, same-sex spouses will be covered. You should also update any policy definitions to ensure that same-sex spouses are not excluded. Remove any references to “husband” or “wife,” and replace them with “spouse.”
  • Employee benefits. Your insurance, pension, and retirement plans may need to be updated. You should consult your plan administrators and benefits attorneys regarding any required changes. In addition, employees may wish to change beneficiary designations. COBRA will apply to same-sex spouses.
  • Employee contact information. Employees may also wish to update basic contact information as to their spouses.
  • Employee tax information. In addition, employees may wish to adjust withholding information to account for a now-legally recognized same-sex spouse. Income imputed from employer contributions for a same-sex spouse’s health coverage will not be subject to federal income taxes. Employees will also be able to use flexible spending accounts to cover a same-sex spouse’s medical costs on a pre-tax basis.
  • Marital status discrimination. Same-sex spouses will be entitled to protection under State marital status discrimination laws.