The Supreme Court of the United States announced on January 16, 2015, that it would review four cases challenging the constitutionality of state laws banning same-sex marriage in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in November 2014 that the same-sex marriage bans in these states were constitutional, thereby creating a split of opinion among the federal circuit courts.

As of January 30, 2015, same-sex marriage is legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia. In addition, Michigan is expected to soon begin recognizing 323 marriages that were performed there in March 2014 (during the one-day period after a district court found the state’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional and before an appellate court issued a stay of the district court ruling).

A ruling by the Supreme Court is expected in June 2015. If the Supreme Court rules that state laws banning same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, the ruling will create precedent that will lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Same-sex couples would then be able to marry in any state and would be entitled to all of the rights, benefits and obligations that are extended to opposite-sex spouses under both federal and state laws.

Federal Law

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Windsor that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional (for more information, see McDermott’s On the SubjectSupreme Court Rules on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8”). Section 3 of DOMA had provided that, for purposes of all federal laws, the word “marriage” means “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and the word “spouse” refers “only to a person of the opposite-sex who is a husband or wife.” Subsequent Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and U.S. Department of Labor guidance clarified that, as a result of Windsor, favorable federal tax treatment of spousal benefit coverage would extend to all same-sex couples legally married in any jurisdiction with laws authorizing same-sex marriage, regardless of whether the couple currently resides in a state where same-sex marriage is recognized (see McDermott’s On the SubjectIRS Guidance Clarifies Retroactive Retirement Plan Impact of Supreme Court’s Windsor Ruling” for more information). The most recent IRS guidance clarifies that, effective as of June 26, 2013, retirement plans must be administered in a manner that reflects the Windsor ruling.

Next Steps for Employers

All employers should continue to monitor developments in this case and in state same-sex marriage laws. The Supreme Court’s ruling could have significant consequences for employers in states where same-sex marriage has not been legalized or that have not otherwise extended spousal benefit coverage to same-sex spouses. An employer that currently extends benefit coverage to unmarried same-sex partners would need to consider whether to continue offering such benefits if all employees can marry and thereby receive spousal coverage under the employer’s benefit plans.