Revisit employment policies in light of Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling

July 2015
Ryan B. Frazier

Since December 2013, when the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah concluded that Utah’s definition of marriage as the union between only a man and a woman was unconstitutional, the validity of same-sex marriage has been a hot topic in Utah. On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court finally resolved the question, finding prohibitions against same-sex marriage invalid and unconstitutional.

The Court’s ruling will have an impact on the application of many employment laws that cover spouses. Employers need to be aware of how the ruling will affect them and what changes they may need to make.

Same-sex marriage legalized

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right protected by the U.S. Constitution. According to the ruling, state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage are invalid and unconstitutional.This sweeping change effectively legalizes same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

Regardless of the state in which a company is located, the Court’s ruling will have an impact on employment obligations under various laws and affect other administrative matters related to employees. Employers must become familiar with how the ruling will affect the application of employment laws and the benefits employers offer.

Impact on FMLA leave

The most obvious impact will occur with respect to the application of leave benefits under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Previously, the FMLA applied to same-sex couples depending on whether same-sex marriage was legal in the state where their marriage was performed. Any confusion resulting from the different ways in which individual states treated same-sex marriage has now been definitively resolved.

The Court’s ruling should afford FMLA leave to an employee in a same-sex marriage regardless of the state in which the marriage was performed or where the employee seeking leave resides.

Benefits, handbooks, and policies

The ruling also means that laws providing for spousal benefits must extend to same-sex spouses on equal footing with the benefits required for opposite-sex spouses. For example, COBRA benefits will now extend to spouses in same-sex marriages.

Employers should evaluate their handbooks and policy manuals to ensure they are consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling. How employers define “spouse” under their policies and practices may need to be updated.

Further, employers need to make certain that their health insurance plans comply with the change to the definition of marriage.

Bottom line

The legalization of same-sex marriage will permit same-sex couples to file both state and federal tax returns as “married filing jointly.” Accounting departments should ensure that they know the impact of the change on payroll deductions and other financial matters related to employees in same-sex marriages. Ultimately, employers may want to consult with legal counsel to determine whether they have properly accounted for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

You can contact the author at rfrazier@kmclaw.com or 801-323-5933.