Early October marked a turning point for same-sex couples in our country, as the U.S. Supreme Court let stand lower court rulings that overturned bans on same-sex marriage in five states.
The court declined to review decisions from three federal appeals courts, therefore legalizing same-sex marriage in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. This decision granted same-sex spouses equal state tax treatment for employer-provided benefits.
Benefits Gained for Same-Sex Spouses
1. Unpaid Leave
The Department of Labor has extended the Family and Medical Leave Act to same-sex spouses, requiring larger employers and public agencies to grant eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. In addition, the continuation of health benefits must be provided for the birth or adoption of a child; to care for a spouse, parent or child who has become ill; or to deal with personal illness. As of now, the ruling only pertains to same-sex spouses in states that acknowledge their marriage. It is unknown when the more inclusive rule will take effect.
2. Social Security
Same-sex spouses in eligible states (those 25 states where same-sex marriage is legalized) now may collect the same benefits as opposite-sex spouses, including survivor benefits, lump-sum benefits and aged benefits. Benefits also have been extended to individuals who have spousal inheritance rights. In other words, a same-sex partner could collect a spouse’s share of the deceased person’s property if that person passed away without a will.
3. Benefits Protection
What if you move out of an eligible state that recognized your same-sex union? You are still covered; the agency will not re-examine your eligibility. You also remain protected if, at any point during the application process, you lived in a state that recognized your marriage.
What Employers Should Know
While same-sex marriage is now legal in 25 states nationwide, not every state permits the benefits listed above. Which states do grant equal rights? According to the Social Security Administration, the list includes the following:
• New Hampshire,
• New Jersey,
• Rhode Island,
• Wisconsin and
• the District of Columbia.
If you reside in one of these states and wish to apply for same-sex spousal benefits, there are a few things regarding eligibility to keep in mind. You may apply as a surviving spouse as early as nine months into your marriage; however, in order to qualify for those benefits, you must be married for at least one year. Because the waiting period is currently unknown, it is best to apply early.
However, there are exceptions. If you were in a civil union or another type of legal relationship that later resulted in marriage, you could be eligible based upon the length of those relationships. Or, if a couple were domestic partners in one state, then moved to another state where they were in a civil union, the total length of those relationships could be taken into consideration.
Regardless of state, many are of the opinion that same-sex couples should apply for benefits as soon as circumstances warrant. Doing so will preserve the filing date, which could be used later to determine the start date of any potential benefits, should the state subsequently decide to grant benefits to same-sex couples.
This situation will continue to evolve, as a few Congressional bills are pending that would make benefits available to all same-sex spouses, regardless of state residence. The time line for when – or even if – these bills will pass is unknown.