On May 31, 2012 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, in Massachusetts v. United States Department of Health and Human Services, declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. Section 3 defines marriage for purposes of applying all federal statutes as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” The First Circuit held that this definition of marriage violates the Equal Protection Clause by denying federal benefits to same-sex couples lawfully married under state law. The Court, however, stayed enforcement of its decision pending appeal.
As a reminder, DOMA does not formally invalidate same-sex marriages in the states that legally recognize them, but it does have several consequences for same-sex married couples under federal law. For example, same-sex married couples may not file joint federal income tax returns, enjoy the preferential tax treatment afforded employer-sponsored spousal health insurance benefits, or receive health insurance as the spouse of a federal employee. So what does this decision mean to employers and sponsors of employee benefit plans?