Sarah Farley had worked at a law firm where she participated in the firmâ€™s Profit Sharing Plan â€“ a plan qualified under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). The Plan provides that death benefits be paid to the participantâ€™s â€śsurviving Spouse.â€ť
Sarah then married Jean Tobits in Canada. When Sarah died, both Jean and Sarahâ€™s parents claimed the death benefits.
The dispute went to federal district court in Pennsylvania (Cozen Oâ€™Connor PC v. Tobits) where the judge had no trouble deciding that Jean was Sarahâ€™s surviving spouse.
In United States v. Windsor (US Supreme Court 06/26/2013) the Supreme Court held that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) â€“ defining â€śspouseâ€ť as a person of the opposite sex â€“ is unconstitutional. Therefore, since Sarah and Jean were lawfully married, and that marriage is recognized by the laws of Illinois, ERISA has to be interpreted as meaning Jean was Sarahâ€™s spouse. And thus the law firmâ€™s ERISA plan has to be interpreted as meaning Jean was Sarahâ€™s spouse.
This leaves me with one huge question: Will you get the same result in every state? That seems doubtful to me. The opinion in Windsor (a 5-4 decision) relied heavily on the fact that Windsorâ€™s same-sex marriage was recognized by the State of New York (and the Tobits marriage was recognized by the State of Illinois). As Justice Kennedy put it, â€śDOMAâ€™s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.â€ť So, if youâ€™re in a state where same-sex marriages are not recognized, it may be difficult to apply the logic of the Windsor case.
Hat Tip to Mike Reilly at Lane Powell, who writes Boom: The ERISA Law Blog.
This article originally appeared on Ross Runkel Report on August 13, 2013.Â Reprinted with permission
About the Author: Ross Runkel Ross Runkel is a full-time labor-management arbitrator, professor of law emeritus, and former editor of Employment Law Memo.