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On June 26, 2013, the US Supreme Court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. DOMA had previously established the federal definition of marriage as a legal union only between one man and one woman. The extinction of DOMA already has HR departments thinking how this will impact the future of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) as well as other benefits.
How FMLA is Impacted
As we know, the FMLA allows otherwise eligible employees to take leave to care for a family member with a serious health condition. “Family member” includes the employee’s spouse, which, under the FMLA regulations, is defined as:
a husband or wife as defined or recognized under State law for purposes of marriage in the State where the employee resides, including common law marriage in States where it is recognized. 29 C.F.R. 825.102
Initially, this seems to suggest that the DOL would look to state law to define “spouse”…but not so fast. According to a 1998 Department of Labor opinion letter, the DOL acknowledged that the FMLA was bound by DOMA’s definition that “spouse” could only be a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife. Thus, the DOL has taken the position that only DOMA’s definitions could be recognized for FMLA leave purposes. As a result, FMLA leave has not been made available to same-sex spouses.
That changes yesterday, at least in part.
What’s Clear about FMLA After the Ruling
In striking down a significant part of DOMA, the Supreme Court cleared the way for each state to decide its own definition of “spouse”. Thus, if an employee is married to a same-sex partner and lives in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, the employee will be entitled to take FMLA leave to care for his/her spouse who is suffering from a serious health condition, for military caregiver leave, or to take leave for a qualifying exigency when a same-sex spouse is called to active duty in a foreign country while in the military.
What’s Unclear about FMLA After the Ruling
But what about employees who live in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage? Are they entitled to FMLA leave to care for their spouses?
As an initial matter, the regulations look to the employee’s “place of domicile” (aka state of primary residence) to determine whether a person is a spouse for purposes of FMLA. Therefore, even if the employee formerly lived or was married in a state that recognized the same-sex marriage, he/she is unlikely to be considered a spouse in the “new” state for purposes of FMLA if the state does not recognize the marriage. This is no small issue, since 30+ states currently do not recognize same-sex marriage and some don’t go all the way (e.g. Illinois, which recognizes same-sex unions, not marriages).
Surely, some might argue that the U.S. Constitution requires other states to recognize the marriage; however, this issue is far from settled. Clearly employers need some help from the DOL. It is speculated that the DOL may draft regulations on how employers can administer FMLA in situations where the employee’s spouse is not recognized under state law. This would give life to concepts such as a “State of Celebration” rule, in which a spousal status is determined based on the law of the State where the employee was married and not where they reside. However, without more guidance, it is still too early to tell how the DOL will handle this.
Other Key Benefits Affected by the DOMA Decision
FMLA is not the only federal law impacted by the fall of DOMA. If federal regulations follow through, some of the notable federal laws and benefits impacted may include: