In Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that marriage is a fundamental right afforded to both heterosexual and same-sex couples. Before Obergefell, laws regarding same-sex marriage were inconsistent. Depending on where they lived, same-sex couples had access to civil unions, domestic partnerships, marriages, or none of the above. Some states recognized some of these legal relationships established in other states, while other states refused to recognize any of them. The law had become more consistent in the past year or so, as many states struck down bans on same-sex marriage and Circuit Courts upheld the invalidation of these bans. Now, marriage—not “traditional marriage” or “same-sex marriage”—is the law of the land, and this has practical implications for both employers and employees.

Although the Obergefell decision changes nothing for Idaho law, which has permitted same-sex marriage since October 2014, employers should be aware that their policies and procedures concerning married employees will apply equally to same-sex spouses. For instance, married individuals are eligible for many employment and retirement benefits that single individuals do not receive, and these will apply regardless of whether the marriage is between people of the same sex. The legal and financial considerations extend into many areas, such as:

  • 401(k)s: Dual earner couples who both have 401(k)s at work can defer income tax on twice the contributions as single people. Spouses are generally the default beneficiary of 401(k)s and other pension plans;
  • IRAs: Married couples have different income limits than individuals when it comes to their ability to make tax-deductible IRA contributions if they also have retirement accounts at work. Further, spouses who inherit an IRA are able to treat it as their own and roll it into their own retirement accounts, unlike other beneficiaries;
  • Taxes: All married couples may jointly file state and federal taxes;
  • Social Security: Married couples are entitled to many different claiming options that unmarried couples cannot utilize. Further, surviving spouses are entitled to receive survivor benefits after the death of one spouse;
  • Married, same-sex couples now possess all medical and financial decision-making abilities previously afforded to only opposite-sex couples in the absence of valid medical/financial powers of attorney.

    While any shift in employment policies likely began in October 2014 after same-sex marriage was recognized in Idaho, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell makes it clear that there is no difference between opposite-sex and same-sex spouses under the Constitution. This means that employment policies regarding married employees will have to be considered for their effect and applicability on same-sex spouses. Certain federal laws already embody that sentiment (for example, the FMLA already defines “spouse” to include same-sex spouses married in a state that recognizes that marriage), but more federal and state law will quickly follow Obergefell  and its broad pronouncement. It is important for employers to keep up with any changes in the coming months to ensure compliance with all state and federal law.

    Things to consider:

  • Many people have very strong beliefs in support of or contrary to the outcome in Obergefell. Employers should be prepared to address any workplace issues that arise as they would any other workplace discussion that may intersect with such personal and religious beliefs.
  • Employers should note that Obergefell does not directly implicate the FMLA, ADA, or Title VII.
  • Employers should pay close attention to maternity and paternity leave policies, particularly if the FMLA does not apply to the organization. For example, if only women are entitled to maternity leave while men are not guaranteed paternity leave, employers should considering allowing all parents to take time off for the birth or adoption of a child.

    Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.