Human Resources
Marriage Equality Relationships in the States

Marriage Equality Relationships in the States


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Approximately three-quarters of the states and the District of Columbia now recognize same-sex marriage, and we expect that number to increase over the coming months, if not weeks.

This continues to be an area of rapidly changing developments. On January 16, 2015, the Supreme Court agreed to hear same-sex marriage cases from Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee. In light of the speed with which the courts are deciding these cases and the rapid (or not-so-rapid) responses from state attorneys general and governors, we will review and update this chart in as timely a manner as possible to reflect changes in state recognition of same-sex marriage. If you need a more current list, please don’t hesitate to contact us. The bulletin below reflects current law as of February 9, 2015.

Marriage Equality Relationships in the States, February 9, 2015

The legal recognition of same-sex relationships has been a divisive issue across the United States, particularly during the past two decades. Many states have entered the debate by adopting prohibitions against same-sex marriage or taking action to allow same-sex marriage or other forms of recognition for same-sex couples.

Under the federal Defense of Marriage Act (federal DOMA), as enacted in 1996 and before the Supreme Court decision discussed below, “marriage” was defined as the union of one man and one woman, and a “spouse” was defined as a person of the opposite sex. All federal laws and regulations used the definition under the federal DOMA. For employee benefits purposes, same-sex spouses did not qualify as spouses for purposes of federal income tax law, ERISA and other federal mandates (e.g., COBRA, HIPAA) for group health plans, or pension plan rules protecting federally recognized spouses. The federal DOMA continues to provide that no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage entered into in another state.

On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two long-awaited decisions on same-sex marriage that will have long-term implications for employers that sponsor employee benefit plans. The Court ruled that the section of federal DOMA defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman is unconstitutional. The opinion and its holding are confined to lawful marriages. In the second decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the petitioners in the California Proposition 8 case did not have standing to contest the district court’s decision overturning California’s ban on same-sex marriage. This ruling effectively allowed same-sex marriages again in California.

The decision does not impact the federal or state income tax treatment of health benefits provided to civil union couples or registered domestic partners.

Fully insured group health plans and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) are governed by state insurance and HMO law and must comply with state law benefit mandates. Therefore, in states that recognize civil unions and same-sex marriages, insurers/HMOs that provide coverage to opposite-sex spouses will most likely need to offer coverage to civil union partners or same-sex spouses as well. Employers with fully insured plans or HMOs should carefully review their insurance policies/HMO contracts to determine compliance with these same-sex relationship laws.

While many states have taken steps to prohibit the recognition of same-sex relationships, others have taken steps in the opposite direction. This Aon Hewitt bulletin focuses on these states that provide legal recognition for same-sex couples. States provide legal recognition of same-sex couples in a variety of forms, including:

  • Same-sex marriage
    What is it? Marriage recognized under laws of a state between two persons of the same biological sex.
    Where? Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington State, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. Please note that although counties within a state may be issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, this action does not necessarily mean that the state legally recognizes same-sex marriages. Until a state has declined to appeal a court decision recognizing same-sex marriage, the legal status of the marriage is still in flux. We do not consider a state as a same-sex marriage state unless further substantial litigation has ended, and the court decisions are considered final by the state.
  • Civil union
    What is it? Legally recognized form of partnership similar to marriage with essentially the same legal rights under applicable state law as married couples. May be provided to opposite-sex couples as well as same-sex couples.
    Where? Four states (Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey) allow same-sex couples to enter into a civil union.
  • Domestic partnership
    What is it? Legal or personal relationship between two individuals who live together and share a common domestic life. May be provided to opposite-sex couples as well as same-sex couples.
    Where? Four states (California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington State) and the District of Columbia have domestic partnership laws that allow same-sex couples to enter into a registered domestic partnership. These laws provide broad rights to domestic partners, including health benefits. Four states (Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, and Wisconsin) have more limited registered domestic partnership laws that do not include health benefits for domestic partners, but do include other rights (e.g., hospital visitation, inheritance).
  • Other forms of recognition—Hawaii and Vermont have permitted individuals of the same sex to register as reciprocal beneficiaries, though new reciprocal beneficiary relationships for same-sex couples will, in general, not be available in Hawaii as of December 2, 2013. Colorado allows individuals of the same sex to register as designated beneficiaries. These may also apply for opposite-sex couples.

This bulletin provides an overview of the states that provide legal recognition of same-sex relationships, including the effective dates and which provisions may also apply to opposite-sex couples. Please note that many of the laws have been amended and expanded after enactment, but the chart only reflects the original effective date. Information on litigation in the chart covers lawsuits over same-sex marriages performed in the state, not out-of-state marriage recognition.

In addition to state laws permitting same-sex marriage, some Native American tribes formally recognize same-sex marriage. For instance, the Coquille Tribe in Oregon adopted an ordinance in 2008 that defines marriage as a contract between two persons, regardless of their sex. Please note that tribal recognition is not reflected in the chart.

Aon Hewitt has published bulletins on many of these laws when they were initially enacted. For copies of these bulletins, or for additional information on any of these laws, please contact your Aon Hewitt consultant.

Of course, a high-level overview cannot include all the nuances and details of every law. Since the law changes rapidly and is also subject to varying interpretations by different courts and certain government and administrative bodies, there is no guarantee that the legal information is completely current. Please always check with your Aon Hewitt consultant to be certain that the list of states included is up-to-date. Aon Hewitt is not a law firm, and contents of this bulletin are not intended to supersede or replace the advice of legal counsel.

Download Marriage Equality Relationships in the States