The impact of the decision striking down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act is clear in the 13 states and the District of Columbia where gay marriage is legal or soon will be: Same-sex married couples must be treated the same as other spouses under federal laws governing taxes, health care, pensions and other federal benefits.
Employee benefit experts say the ruling’s effect remains murky in the other 37 states. The court left intact another provision of the federal anti-gay marriage law that allows one state not to recognize a same-sex marriage performed elsewhere.
“What’s the federal government going to do when you have a valid marriage in New York and the couple moves to Texas? We don’t know the answer to that,” said Scott Macey, the president of the ERISA Industry Committee, which represents large employers.
The confusion is creating uncertainty for many companies that operate nationwide and want to administer benefit plans in a uniform manner.
About 62 percent of Fortune 500 companies already offer same-sex domestic partner health benefits, according to the gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.
Several companies that already offer domestic partner benefits said they did not plan any immediate changes. That includes Ford Motor Co., which has offered same-sex benefits since 2000, spokesman Jay Cooney said.
At glass manufacturer Corning Inc. in New York, spokesman Daniel Collins said the company has been in the process of revising its policies as different states legalize gay marriage. For now, it plans to keep its domestic partner benefits until it has more guidance.
“It’s so new and actions are occurring so quickly,” Collins said.
Macey said the federal government could go a long way in clarifying things when it issues regulations establishing how the court ruling should be implemented. The court seemed to leave it up to the Internal Revenue Service and other federal agencies to decide how to resolve conflicts between states over gay marriage.
President Barack Obama said he’s directed the attorney general and members of his Cabinet “to review all relevant federal statutes to ensure this decision, including its implications for federal benefits and obligations, is implemented swiftly and smoothly.”
It’s possible the Obama administration could say that federal benefits should be granted equally to all spouses in same-sex marriages, even if they live in a state that won’t recognize the union, Macey said. But such a ruling would not prevent the continued denial of state benefits to gay couples in states where same-sex marriages are not legal.
Macey said most companies will probably wait to see how the federal government is going to interpret the decision.