The Marriage Equality Act, which went into effect on July 24, 2011, redefines marriage to include partnerships between same-sex couples. The MEA has important implications for employers, as certain protections and benefits provided under New York State law will now be available to same-sex spouses.
For example, a worker covered by New York’s Military Spouse Leave Law can now take leave when his/her same-sex spouse is on leave from military deployment during a period of military conflict to a combat theater or combat zone of operations. A spouse may also recover worker’s compensation benefits for a same-sex spouse’s death in the workplace.
However, employee benefit plans and retirement plans generally remain unaffected by the MEA. These plans are generally covered by ERISA, a federal law which preempts state benefits and retirement law. ERISA-covered plans are unchanged by the MEA, as federal law does not permit the extension of benefits to same-sex spouses. Therefore, provisions in ERISA-covered plans that refer to a “spouse,” such as those permitting a spouse to be named a beneficiary, still apply only to opposite-sex spouses.
The MEA may also affect employer tax withholdings. New York State tax law expressly states the definition of “marital status” is the same for both federal and state income taxes. However, the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage for tax or other purposes. With the passage of the MEA, it is unclear whether New York will continue to follow the federal definition of marital status for tax purposes.
The legal implications of the MEA are further complicated by President Obama’s announcement in February that the Department of Justice will cease to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the federal law codifying the definition of marriage between a man and a woman. We will provide periodic updates as additional workplace implications of the MEA continue to unfold.