DOL Issues Eligibility Guidance

October 10, 2013 ( – ERISA-governed employee benefit plans will now base spousal eligibility on the validity of the marriage in the state in which the ceremony took place, the National Law Review reports.

The Department of Labor (DOL) has issued guidance—Tech. Release 2013-04—regarding the eligibility of spousal benefits for same-sex marriages. According to the National Law Review, employee benefit plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) will now look to the state in which the marriage took place—not the couple’s state of residence—to confirm eligibility for spousal benefits. The DOL has not yet indicated whether this position will be applied retroactively.

The so-called “state of celebration” rule was also adopted by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in Revenue Ruling 2013-17. This applies to all tax purposes, the law review stated, including pension and welfare benefit plans. Same-sex marriages are currently legal in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington state and the District of Columbia.

Plan sponsors may want to review the terms used in a plan’s document to determine which benefits are provided for a “spouse” and ensure that the state of celebration rule is used in their own practices where applicable. Certain aspects of the law that govern pension plans mandate spousal rights, the law review said, but welfare benefit plans do not have the same legal requirements.

The new guidance from the IRS and DOL relates to the definitions of “spouse” and “marriage” as the terms appear in ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC); formal relationships not designated as marriages—such as civil unions and domestic partnerships—are not included.