Benefits Compliance

US Supreme Court Invalidates DOMA and Upholds Constitutionality of Same-Sex Marriage


Today (June 26, 2013), the US Supreme Court issued groundbreaking 5-4 decisions in two separate cases involving the rights of same-sex couples. In the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case (Windsor v US) the court held the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional on the grounds it violates the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law.  In the California case (Hollingsworth v Perry) the court dismissed the case and sent it back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals with instructions to dismiss the appeal.

DOMA Case (Windsor v US):

What it Means: The Supreme Court’s ruling means that same-sex couples who are legally married under state law will be entitled to equal treatment under federal law.  There is no constitutional basis for denying same-sex couples the right to marry, and they will have the same rights as opposite-sex married couples.  For example, they will be able to file joint federal income tax returns and will be eligible for spousal Social Security benefits on the same basis as opposite-sex couples.  Additionally, what this means for employers and employee benefits is: 

  • employers will no longer have to impute income on the value of employer-paid benefits for employees’ same-sex spouses
  • employees can use amounts in their Health FSA accounts to pay for health care expenses of their same-sex spouses
  • employers no longer need to bother with Affidavits from employees as to whether their same-sex spouses are also their Tax Code dependents

The ruling applies only to same-sex spouses, not to same-sex domestic partners or civil union partners.  One further note:  While the Supreme Court decision requires federal law to recognize same-sex marriages that are valid under state law, the court decision does not require states to allow same-sex marriage.  (That issue was not before the Court.)

The Facts:  Edith Windsor, who was legally married to a woman under New York State law, sued the federal government to get the federal estate tax deduction that is available to widowed opposite-sex spouses.  As a result of the court’s ruling, she will be able to claim a $363,000 tax refund that she would not have had to pay had her deceased spouse been a man.

How the Justices Voted: The majority opinion is by Justice Kennedy, joined by the four liberal Justices — Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan.

California Case (Hollingsworth v Perry):

What it Means:   Proponents of Proposition 8 (which banned same-sex marriage) did not have standing, which means the Supreme Court could not reach the merits of the case.  The Supreme Court did not rule on whether state laws that limit the definition of marriage are constitutional, but it appears from the court’s decision in Windsor that if/when that decision does reach the Supreme Court, it will rule that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

The Facts:  Here’s a “plain English” version of the somewhat complicated set of facts in the California case, from SCOTUSblog ( – a blog site on US Supreme Court and its decisions) .  “After the two same-sex couples filed their challenge to Proposition 8 in federal court in California, the California government officials who would normally have defended the law in court, declined to do so. So the proponents of Proposition 8 stepped in to defend the law, and the California Supreme Court (in response to a request by the lower court) ruled that they could do so under state law. But today the Supreme Court held that the proponents do not have the legal right to defend the law in court. As a result, it held, the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the intermediate appellate court, has no legal force, and it sent the case back to that court with instructions for it to dismiss the case.”

How the Justices Voted:  The majority opinion is by Chief Justice Roberts with Scalia, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan.   Kennedy wrote the dissent, joined by Thomas, Alito and Sotomayor.