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Background

On August 1, 2013 Minnesota made marriage legal for same-sex couples, joining a growing number of states and countries that allow same-sex couples to marry. For the purposes of employment law for Minnesota employers and employees, a marriage is now a marriage. Differential benefits between same-sex married couples and opposite-sex married couples would likely run afoul of state anti-discrimination laws.

The United States Supreme Court’s June 2015 decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. This nationwide decision helped to resolve possible legal complexities with different situations in different states. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: If a company provides benefits to opposite sex spouses of employees, is it required to extend those same benefits to same-sex married couples?

A: Yes, Minnesota same-sex marriage is legal and benefits must be extended equally to not engage in discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is prohibited under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. Such discrimination has been prohibited since 1993.

Q: I don't believe in same-sex marriage, am I required to provide benefits to same-sex spouses?

A: Yes, you are required to provide equal benefits unless you are an exempt religious institution. Additional guidance on religious exemption can be found on MDHR's web site.

ERISA and Federal Preemption

Certain areas of employee benefit law are covered by federal, not state, law due to federal preemption. One major area is pension plans covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which sets minimum standards for private pension plans.

Q: If a company has a pension plan covered by ERISA, what are its duties to cover same-sex spouses?

A: This question is beyond the limits of the Minnesota Department of Human Right's authority.

Appropriate legal guidance on the federal law should be sought in making that determination. The U.S. Department of Labor has issued guidance on employee benefits plans under ERISA in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Windsor (DOMA case).

The U.S. Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration is responsible for ERISA oversight. They can be reached with questions not covered in their guidance by visiting their website or by phone at 1.886.444.3272.

Tax Issues

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights' jurisdiction does not cover tax issues. The IRS and the Minnesota Department of Revenue have issued guidance on federal and state tax treatment for same-sex marriage couples.

IRS Guidance

Minnesota Department of Revenue Guidance:

Conclusion

A marriage is a marriage now nationwide, with limited exceptions for religious institutions and possible federal preemption as cited in this document and elsewhere. Employers must provide equal benefits to same-sex and opposite-sex married employees in order to comply with the requirements of the Minnesota Human Rights Act and other laws. If you believe you have been discriminated against based on sexual orientation or another protected class, you can contact MDHR's enforcement unit at: 651.539.1100, or online at mn.gov/mdhr/intake/.

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