July 1, 2015
Authored by: Chris Rylands and Denise Erwin
As has now been widely reported, the Supreme Court ruled on June 26 (the second anniversary of the Windsor decision) that same-sex couples have a right to marry in any part of the United States. Despite being hailed as a victory for marriage equality, as this New York Times article points out, it may not be such happy news for currently unwed domestic partners. Specifically, there is a concern, as the article points out, that employers who previously extended coverage to domestic partners out of a sense of equity may now decide not to since both opposite-sex and same-sex couples can now marry.
As the article mentions, there was a concern at one time that domestic partnership rules would be used by some employees to cover individuals with whom they are not really in a committed relationship. Given that not all states have registration requirements or clear standards, it was largely up to employers to set the standards for what constituted enough of a commitment for a domestic partner to warrant coverage. The difficulty was that employers had to balance not covering individuals who really were not in committed relationships with setting a standard low enough that those who really were in such relationships could qualify. The article says that it does not appear that this was really a problem, but of course, the validity of such relationships are more difficult to verify than a marriage.
What the article also fails to point out is that there are some valid reasons why employers may want to eliminate coverage for unmarried domestic partners. Health coverage provided to a spouse is generally nontaxable under federal and state laws. However, domestic partnerships, by contrast, are subject to a patchwork of various rules ranging from essentially marriage equivalence in some states to complete non-recognition in others. This means that, in many cases, domestic partner health coverage results in imputed (that is, non-cash) income to employees for federal and some state purposes. The calculation of that imputed income is not 100% clear and the administration of those benefits can be complex.
Many employers who saw extending coverage to same-sex couples as important were willing to suffer those difficulties and take on that risk of the IRS or state agencies second-guessing their calculations when marriage was not uniformly available to those couples. Now that it is, those employers have to engage in a cost-benefit analysis to determine if the complexity and risk are worth it on a going-forward basis.
Additionally, it is unclear what the effect of state domestic partner and civil union laws will be after the Obergefell decision. Even though marriage is now available to same-sex couples, the decision did not remove those laws from the states’ books. What movement, if any, states make in this regard will likely influence what employers do going forward as well.
The talent recruitment marketplace will eventually sort this out, but in the interim, employers should at least consider evaluating whether offering unmarried domestic partner benefits continues to be important as part of their recruitment and retention strategy.