On June 26, 2013, the United States Supreme Court issued one of its most highly anticipated decisions in United States v. Windsor. In that opinion, the Court ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional because it violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. Section 3 had limited the terms “marriage” and “spouse” to opposite-sex couples for purposes of all federal laws. As a result, same-sex marriages that are valid under state law now must also be recognized for federal law purposes.
While on the surface this appears to be a primarily social issue, the Windsor decision will also have major implications for the operation of employee benefit plans, as they are principally governed by the Code and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), both federal laws.