Employers providing benefits for employees' same-sex spouses may want to consider the availability of federal payroll tax refunds if the Supreme Court of the United States finds Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional.  Employers currently must impute income to an employee for the fair market value of benefit coverage for a non-dependent same-sex spouse.  Such imputed income is subject to federal income and payroll taxes, as well as state income taxes in the majority of states.

The Supreme Court of the United States is expected to rule in late June on the constitutionality of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  A ruling that DOMA is unconstitutional will favorably reverse the federal tax treatment of employer-provided benefits for non-dependent same-sex spouses.  Such a reversal may lead to refunds of federal payroll taxes paid by employers and federal income taxes paid by employees on income imputed to employees for same-sex spouse benefit coverage.

Current Law

The Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA in United States v. Windsor.  Windsor is a surviving spouse who was required to pay $350,000 in federal estate taxes after her same-sex spouse died—taxes she would not have had to pay if her same-sex marriage that was legally recognized in her home state of New York was also recognized under federal law.  Section 3 of DOMA provides that for all purposes of federal law, 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.”

Employees who enroll a non-dependent same-sex spouse or partner under an employer-sponsored benefit plan currently must pay federal income taxes on the fair market value of such coverage.  While federal law excludes amounts that an employer pays toward medical, dental or vision benefits for an employee and the employee’s opposite-sex spouse and dependents from the employee’s taxable income, employers that provide these same benefits to employees’ same-sex spouses or partners are required to impute the fair market value of the benefits as income to the employee that is subject to federal income tax, unless the same-sex spouse or partner otherwise qualifies as the employee’s “dependent” as defined for federal income tax purposes.  Employers are required to withhold federal payroll taxes from the imputed amount, including income, Social Security and Medicare taxes.  In addition, employers must pay their share of Social Security and Medicare taxes on the imputed amount, as well as Federal Unemployment Tax Act taxes.  The majority of states follow the federal income tax rules approach and also require employers to impute income on the value of such benefits for state income tax purposes.

Consider Filing a Protective Claim Now

Employers that have imputed income on the fair market value of benefits for employees’ same-sex spouses should consider filing protective FICA tax refund claims and should be poised to change their systems to allow for the future exclusion of benefits provided to same-sex spouses.  Although filing a complete refund claim can be burdensome from an administrative perspective, it is relatively easy for an employer to file a protective claim to preserve the statute of limitations on employment tax refund claims for open years and later file a supplementary claim with necessary employee consents and exact calculations. 

In general, the statute of limitations for tax refund claims is three years.  The due date for the protective claim is three years from April 15 of the calendar year following the year in which the income was imputed to the employee.  For example, for employment taxes paid on income imputed in 2010, a protective claim should be filed by April 15, 2014.  If not filed already, a refund claim cannot be filed with respect to employment taxes paid on income imputed before 2010 as the statute has run for that year.

If an employment tax refund had already been filed and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) issued a notice of claim disallowance, the taxpayer must either bring suit to contest the disallowance within two years after the issuance of the notice or obtain an extension of the time to file such a suit with the IRS—this process can be initiated by filing IRS Form 907, Agreement to Extend the Time to Bring Suit.

Next Steps

Until the Supreme Court rules on Windsor, employers are advised to continue imputing income on the value of benefit coverage for employees’ non-dependent same-sex spouses and partners and to continue withholding and paying federal payroll taxes on the imputed amount.

View “Supreme Court Oral Arguments on DOMA, Proposition 8: Potential Employee Benefit Plan Implications” for more information on the employee benefit plan implications of the Supreme Court’s possible rulings on the constitutionality of DOMA in Windsor and California’s Proposition 8 in Hollingsworth v. Perry.