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Same-sex couples to receive federal benefit rights

The Supreme Court ruling over Proposition 8 placed California in the center of the battle over the right to marry for same-sex partners, and a Sept. 18 statement by the Department of Labor combined with a recent ruling by the Internal Revenue Service have both expanded the rights of gay couples. Same-sex couples will now be entitled to the federal rights previously only available to traditional married couples when it comes to employee benefits, health plans and pensions. They will also be able to be able to file joint federal tax returns.

These new rules will apply even if a same-sex couple lives in a state that does not recognize gay marriage. The terms "marriage" and "spouse" in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act will be read to include same-sex married couples no matter where they live. Hypothetically, if a gay couple travels to a different state to marry when their home state will not allow it, they will still be able to participate equally in federal retirement and other benefits.

The goal of the ruling is to provide a uniform set of rules that can be applied across the country. Employers with a large workforce in several states will see reduced administration costs, and matters such as survivorship rights and the distribution of benefits will be simplified. Advocacy groups including the Human Rights Campaign have praised the move. The right to marry for same-sex couples is currently recognized in 13 states and the District of Columbia.

The recognition of same-sex marriage brings along with it the legal and financial issues of divorce, custody and prenuptial agreements that were previously only a concern for traditional married couples. An attorney experienced in family law may be able to assist same-sex partners with legal advice to help them make prudent decisions and representation to protect their rights.

Source: ABC News, "Labor Dept.: Same-Sex Spouses Have Benefit Rights", Sam Hananel, September 18, 2013

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