Based on the June 26, 2013 Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor, the DOL issued Technical Release 2013-04 to provide guidance to employee benefit plans, plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries, and plan participants and beneficiaries on the meaning of “spouse” and “marriage” as these terms appear in the provisions of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), and the Internal Revenue Code that the Department interprets.

Guidance

In general, where the Secretary of Labor has authority to issue regulations, rulings, opinions, and exemptions in title I of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code, as well as in the Department’s regulations at chapter XXV of Title 29 of the Code of Federal Regulations, the term “spouse” will be read to refer to any individuals who are lawfully married under any state law, including individuals married to a person of the same sex who were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, but who are domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriages.Similarly, the term “marriage” will be read to include a same-sex marriage that is legally recognized as a marriage under any state law. This is the most natural reading of those terms; it is consistent with Windsor, in which the plaintiff was seeking tax benefits under a statute that used the term “spouse”; and a narrower interpretation would not further the purposes of the relevant statutes and regulations.

For purposes of this guidance, the term “state” means any state of the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, Wake Island, the Northern Mariana Islands, any other territory or possession of the United States, and any foreign jurisdiction having the legal authority to sanction marriages.

The terms “spouse” and “marriage,” however, do not include individuals in a formal relationship recognized by a state that is not denominated a marriage under state law, such as a domestic partnership or a civil union, regardless of whether the individuals who are in these relationships have the same rights and responsibilities as those individuals who are married under state law. The foregoing sentence applies to individuals who are in these relationships with an individual of the opposite sex or same sex.

A rule that recognizes marriages that are valid in the state in which they were celebrated, regardless of the married couple’s state of domicile, provides a uniform rule of recognition that can be applied with certainty by stakeholders, including employers, plan administrators, participants, and beneficiaries.