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US to recognize all same-sex marriages for employee benefit purposes

The US Department of Labor (DOL) [official website] on Wednesday issued guidance [text] explaining that all legally married same-sex spouses in the US can now participate in employee benefit plans overseen by the Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) [official website]. The guidance states that the terms "spouse" and "marriage" in Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) [Cornell LII backgrounder] should be read to include same-sex couples who were legally married in any US state or jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriages. This will apply even where the same-sex spouses are now domiciled in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriages and will allow all such couples to participate in private employee benefit plans, such as healthcare and retirement plans. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez [official profile] stated [press release], "This decision represents a historic step toward equality for all American families, and I have directed the department's agency heads to ensure that they are implementing the decision in a way that provides maximum protection for workers and their families." Perez also said that the DOL will issue further guidance in upcoming months while the department works with other federal agencies to implement these new changes.

Wednesday's guidance is in response to the recent US Supreme Court decision in US v. Windsor [SCOTUSblog backgrounder; JURIST report], which overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) [text]. The ruling did not create a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but it entitles couples in lawfully recognized same-sex marriages to certain federal benefits. Earlier this month the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] announced [JURIST report] that it will no longer enforce a federal law that denies same-sex spouses veterans benefits. In August the US Treasury Department [official website] announced that it, along with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) [official website], will recognize marriages [JURIST report] of all same-sex couples for federal tax purposes.

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