Previous to this decision, the court had ruled in the case U.S. v. Windsor, 133 S. C t. 2675 (2103) to invalidate a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act when they required that same-gender marriages must be recognized for federal law purposes. Unlike the recent Supreme Court decision, the Windsor case did not mandate that states allow same-gender marriages, nor did it force states to recognize such marriages performed in other states. However, after the Windsor decision, this did cause the need for federal agencies to clarify how this would impact various laws. For instance, the IRS deemed the word “spouse” would now include both same-gender and opposite- gender people who were legally married – based on the laws in the state where the ceremony was performed. But now with Obergefell case, states must recognize same-gender and opposite gender marriages equally across the board.
As for the ramifications of this ruling in terms of health and welfare benefits, it will still generally depend on whether the benefits are issued under an insured health plan or a self-insured health plan. Since state governments are now required to acknowledge the term “spouse” to include same-gender individuals in regards to their insurance laws, means that employers who sponsor insured plans will need to offer coverage to both types of spouses as well. However, because self-insured plans are not mandated by state laws, the impact is not so clear. Keep in mind, under ERISA, which all self-insured plans must adhere to, does not mandate that employers cover any spouses – whether same gender or opposite gender for that matter. Therefore, currently, it appears that sponsors of self-insured group health plans may continue to exclude coverage for same-gender spouses, however there is much controversy over whether this could result in claims of discrimination.
In terms of COBRA Laws, it appears that this recent ruling will require that group health plans now offer coverage as well as the applicable COBRA rights to an expanded group, namely same-gender spouses. As for an effective date for those insured plans that previously excluded same-gender spouses, the court did not specify an enforcement deadline. However, it is anticipated that federal agencies may issue guidelines as a result of the Obergefell case such as they did after the Windsor case: the date was determined to be effective on the day the decision was handed down, however, employers were allowed to apply this rule prospectively.