The Department of Labor has issued guidance to employee benefit plans, plan sponsors, plan fiduciaries, and plan participants and beneficiaries as to the impact the U.S. Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor  has on benefit plans governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA). In Windsor, the Court addressed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and held as unconstitutional the section requiring federal laws to ignore same-sex marriages legally entered into under an applicable state law.

DOL’s Technical Release 2013-4 explains that in general, the terms “spouse” and “marriage” in Title I of ERISA and in related department regulations “should be read to include same-sex couples legally married in any state or foreign jurisdiction that recognizes such marriages, regardless of where they currently live.” The terms apply only to marriages, not civil unions or domestic partnerships, even if individuals in those relationships are subject to the same rights and responsibilities as those who are married under state law.

In a press release, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said that the Windsor decision “represents a historic step toward equality for all American families, and I have directed the department’s agency heads to ensure that they are implementing the decision in a way that provides maximum protection for workers and their families,” adding “[t]he department plans to issue additional guidance in the coming months as we continue to consult with the Department of Justice and other federal agencies to implement the decision.”

The IRS recently released its own guidance on the subject.