A year after DOMA ruling, benefits for same-sex federal workers expand

June 26
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Several major benefits related to federal employment have been extended to same-sex married couples and their family members over the last year, although policies regarding unmarried domestic partners remain more restrictive.

The U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, 2013 issued its decision invalidating the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that had defined a marriage, for federal benefits purposes, as only between a man and a woman.

That cleared the way for immediately extending to same-sex spouses major benefits including coverage under the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program and eligibility for a survivor benefit under federal employee retirement annuities. Benefits also were extended under those programs to the children of same-sex spouses who met standard eligibility requirements.


(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Those benefits apply regardless of whether the jurisdiction in which the couple is living recognizes same-sex marriage, so long as the marriage was performed in one that did.

The Office of Personnel Management says it does not have data on how many federal employees, retirees and family members those changes affected.

“One significant logistical barrier to tracking this is that any enrollee who had an existing self and family enrollment (say to cover themselves and their children) only had to call their carrier to add their newly eligible same-sex spouse,” a spokesperson said in an e-mail. “OPM has no way to track that because we aren’t involved in the transaction.”

In addition, a same-sex spouse became eligible for Federal Long-Term Care Insurance Program enrollment. Under that program, eligibility already applied to a same-sex domestic partner meeting certain standards.

Also, under a policy issued last October, a federal employee in a same-sex marriage can use Family and Medical Leave Act unpaid leave for a spouse or that person’s child under the same terms as in opposite-sex marriages. OPM on Monday proposed rules to formalize that policy; the Labor Department meanwhile proposed similar rules applying to the private sector.

Further, the Social Security Administration last week updated its policies for spousal and survivor benefits. SSA considers a claimant to be the worker’s spouse for benefit purposes if the state of the worker’s domicile would allow the claimant to inherit a spouse’s share of the worker’s personal property if the worker died without leaving a will.

(Below is an interactive graphic from the Post’s Emily Chow showing where gay marriage is legal, where it has been banned and where it has been challenged.)

More than nine-tenths of current federal employees are covered by Social Security, although about three-fourths of current retirees worked under a program that does not include that benefit.

Even before the decision, both same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners who meet certain qualifications were covered under some federal employee benefits—for example, using sick leave to care for an ill family member. However, domestic partners of either gender remain ineligible for the two highest-value federal benefits, retirement survivor annuities and health insurance coverage.

Also, some benefits that are available to domestic partners apply only to same-sex, not opposite-sex, partners—for example, eligibility for long-term care insurance and eligibility to cover a child of a partner under health insurance in certain circumstances (even in those cases the partner himself or herself is not eligible).

Prior to the U.S. v. Windsor decision, the reasoning was that opposite sex domestic partners had the option to get married and become eligible for benefits, where same-sex partners didn’t–even if they were married, they wouldn’t have qualified due to DOMA.

“To the extent that there are benefits that we extended only to same-sex but not different-sex domestic partners prior to the Windsor decision, those programs are being reviewed,” the spokesperson said in the e-mail.

The White House earlier this year proposed making domestic partners of either gender eligible for health insurance coverage, but Congress has not taken up that proposal.

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