While much attention has been focused on the federal government shutdown and its effect on Affordable Care Act regulations, employers are still awaiting guidance on another key piece of legislation with benefits plan implications, the Defense of Marriage Act.
“The good news is the most critical guidance has already been issued,” says Todd Solomon, partner in the employee benefits practice of Will McDermott & Emery. “The IRS and DOL have already come out with their notices that explain the state of celebration rule for federal tax purposes so we know the way forward for plan administration.”
Plan sponsors, however, are still awaiting federal guidance on two key issues: retroactivity and the deadline for plan amendments.
“The retroactivity is a bigger issue because plans can and probably will be getting claims with or without the IRS guidance,” says Solomon. “The theory was that the IRS was going to address what employers had to do with retroactivity, and employers were going to hold their breath and hope nothing came with respect to retroactive claims until the IRS guidance came out.”
A delay in the guidance will only affect employers if they get claims for retroactive benefits, says Solomon, with the most likely scenario being a claim for a survivor annuity within a pension plan.
“If a same-sex employee died six months ago, for example, and the plan didn’t pay a survivor benefit to the same-sex spouse, the spouse can make a claim. The plan has to decide whether it’s going to pay that benefit and there’s no clear answer right now on whether the plan is required to,” he says.
“Plans without guidance are in a bit of a box — on the one hand, you could say ‘just pay,’ because that makes the issue go away but, of course, just paying costs money to the trust and if it’s not something that’s required under the terms of the plan, money should never leave a retirement plan trust.”
The IRS also needs to issue guidance about a deadline for when plans need to revise their definition of the term ‘spouse.’
“Absent guidance, it would need to be done by the end of the year,” says Solomon. “If they [federal agencies] want to extend that, they’d need to do that fairly quickly. … it’s not hard guidance to issue so I would guess the shutdown should not impact that too much as long things don’t go on too long.”
Following the Supreme Court’s decision striking DOMA down last June, the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Labor issued regulations adopting a state-of-marriage approach — anyone who is legally married in a state or country recognizing same-sex marriage is now treated exactly the same as an opposite-sex spouse for all qualified plan purposes, including the taxation of medical, dental and vision benefits.
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