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The death of DOMA

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Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer met in 1962, were engaged soon after and finally wed in 2007, near the end of Spyer’s life. For nearly 45 years, the women shared everything. And when Spyer, a psychologist, passed away from multiple sclerosis in 2009 she left her estate to her wife. What a thoughtful last gift—if you’re straight.

Under the federally-mandated Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), Windsor and Spyer’s relationship was not recognized when it came to benefits, meaning Windsor would face a hefty inheritance tax of more than $350,000—something a heterosexual widow would never have to worry about.

Windsor, a former IBM programmer, was not necessarily in need of the money so much as she was in need of justice. Four years ago, she took on the federal government, suing and demanding her money back. Today she won that fight as the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 ruling, claiming it was “unconstitutional.”

With the ruling behind us, the focus now turns to benefits for same-sex couples.

“The Supreme Court’s decision will have a significant impact on employee benefit plans. In the retirement plan context, employers with retirement plans will be required to recognize same-sex spouses for certain purposes,” said George W. Schein, lawyer at Thompson Hine’s Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation practice. “In the welfare plan context, the decision will simplify life for employers who currently provide welfare benefits to same-sex couples by eliminating the current situation in which employers provide tax-free benefits to opposite-sex partners, but must tax benefits to same-sex partners.”

And while federal law does not require employers to provide any, employers who do provide spousal coverage must either begin providing same-sex spousal coverage or face legal challenges. “The Supreme Court’s decision leaves many questions to be resolved by subsequent regulation and undoubtedly litigation,” Schein said. “Conspicuously unresolved is the interplay between the states that recognize same-sex marriage and those that do not. “

Indeed, we will continue to see the conflict between the rights pertaining to federally recognized same-sex marriages vs. state-recognized unions. 


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