Two weeks after the Supreme Court’s ruling that struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), agencies now face the challenge of implementing benefits for the families of employees in same-sex marriages.
On June 26, the Supreme Court ruled Section 3 DOMA unconstitutional, extending federal benefits to include legally married same-sex spouses and their children.
The Office of Personal Management (OPM) issued a letter July 3 on the administration of these benefits. The letter said all legal, same-sex marriages that predate the decision now will be considered new marriages.
OPM said employees and annuitants will receive benefits regardless of their state of residency, the letter said. The letter also mandated managers not make rules that could be perceived as barriers to same-sex couples obtaining their benefits.
“[Managers] could modify rules around where they may have recognized marriage; a barrier would be to change the rule. That would be a big barrier,” said Bruce Elliot, manager of benefits and compensation at the Society for Human Resource Management, in an interview Monday.
Elliot said extending benefits can be especially complicated for managers who may have jurisdiction in more than one state. If a manager has jurisdiction in Maryland and Virginia, for example, he or she may have to use two different enrollment systems, Elliot said.
How an agency recognizes marriage legality also will affect the extension of benefits. Elliot said multiple agencies recognize marriage in different ways. Some see marriage as legal depending on the state a couple resides. Some agencies only regard a marriage as legal in the state where the couple held the ceremony. He added it is important to note the impact on imputed income.
“While imputed income now is free from tax at the federal level, employees really do need to know that if they are working or residing in a state that does not recognize same sex marriage, the employer portion is still subject to state income tax, if the state has an income tax,” Elliot said.
The letter stated employees have until Aug. 26 to make changes to their enrollment. Elliot said that managers will have to make adjustments to their enrollment systems to allow for new qualifying life events and accommodate the systems to let same-sex spouses enroll in the benefits programs.
OPM urged managers to update electronic enrollment systems to ensure that employees wishing to extend benefits would not encounter any technical issues. OPM also recommended managers be flexible in their belated enrollments authority for enrollment actions following the 60-day time period for the Federal Employee Health Benefits program and the Federal Employee Groups Life Insurance program.
Benefits will not apply to same-sex couples in a civil union or domestic partnership. Elliot said that he believes this is not the end of rulings on federal benefits for same-sex couples.
“The reality is the government’s not going to allow spouses in the 37 states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage to enroll in federal benefits, so that’s going to create all kinds of issues. I think this will be back in the courts within the next six months,” Elliot said.