To mark the one-year anniversary of the historic Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the White House announced the extension of new benefits to same-sex married couples.
For instance, the Department of Labor has said that it would clarify rules governing the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to allow gay workers nationwide to take a leave of absence from work to care for a same-sex spouse or other family member, regardless of the state in which the employee resides. In its current implementation, the law states that a "spouse" applies only to a same-sex spouse who resides in one of the 19 states (or the District of Columbia) that recognizes same-sex marriage.
The recent announcement extends changes that have occurred in the past year at other federal agencies to allow same-sex couples to receive many of the same rights and benefits that heterosexual married couples have long had access to. For example, the IRS recognizes the legitimacy of same-sex marriage. Federal immigration law now applies equally to gay and straight couples. And federal government agencies now extend the same health and life insurance benefits to spouses of gay employees.
A major sticking point in federal law pertains to the rules governing two agencies - the Social Security Administration and Department of Veterans Affairs. While same-sex spouses can receive full benefits from those agencies if they live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, those who live in "nonrecognition" states face obstacles.
For its part the Obama administration has said that it will call on Congress to pass legislation to change some provisions under current law, especially as it applies to Social Security benefits and other agencies that still block access to benefits for gay married couples.
The administration has also said it has found "workarounds" in the existing law for some benefits. For instance, government attorneys said they have found legal basis for allowing same-sex spouses to be buried next to their spouses in VA cemeteries. In addition some inheritance law statues as they pertain to recognition versus nonrecognition states are broad enough to cover same-sex couples.
While last year's Supreme Court decision opened the door to more than 1,000 federal benefits that had previously been denied same-sex couples, there is still much work to be done to ensure that the law applies equally to all.
1. The New York Times, "Obama Extends Marriage Benefits to Gay Couples," June 20, 2014.
2. The Wall Street Journal, "Same-Sex Couples to Get More Benefits," June 20, 2014.
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