Same-Sex Marriage Law

MDHR Guidance for Employers and Employees on Minnesota's Same-Sex Marriage Law

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.

Due to the evolving federal legal situation, certain areas of the law, such as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), can add an additional layer of complexity.

Cross border issues involving neighboring states with different marriage laws create additional complexity as well. This information seeks to help employers and employees better understand these issues and what needs to be done to comply with Minnesota law.

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, after August 1, 2013 in Minnesota same-sex marriage is legal and benefits must be extended equally to not engage in discrimination that is prohibited under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

Q: If a company is based in a state that does not recognize or prohibits same-sex marriages, does that company have to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of employees in their Minnesota operations?

A: Yes, employers are required to abide by Minnesota law for their Minnesota operations, including non-discrimination laws. If a company extends benefits to opposite -sex spouses, they must extend the same benefits to same-sex spouses.

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.

Cross Border Issues

Minnesota's neighboring states do not all recognize same-sex marriage, creating added complexity for individuals and employers operating across state lines.

Minnesota is applying the federal standard of recognizing marriages based on their validity in the jurisdiction that issued the marriage license, regardless of the current residence of the couple. This 'place of celebration' rule is being used by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and the U.S. Office of Personnel & Management.

Q: If an employee lives in Minnesota and is employed in Wisconsin, is the employer required to extend benefits to the employee's same-sex spouse?

A: No, the employer is obliged to operate under Wisconsin laws for their operations in that state. MDHR does not have jurisdiction in this case.

Q: If an employee works in Minnesota and lives in Wisconsin, is the employer required to extend benefits to their same-sex spouse if they provide benefits to opposite-sex spouses?

A: Yes, if the employer extends benefits to opposite-sex spouses they must extend the same benefits to same-sex spouses, even if they live in another state. Minnesota recognizes valid marriages without regard to the individual's current residence. For the employer, the location of employment, not the employee's residence location, is the relevant factor in being required to extend benefits.

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 web site 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:

Transition Issues and Timing

As of August 1, 2013 same-sex marriage is legal and recognized in Minnesota. From that point and going forward, same-sex married couples should be treated the same as opposite-sex married couples. Given the complexity of employee benefits and the evolving law in this area at a state and federal level, MDHR recognizes that a full transition will not be instantaneous. The agency will be monitoring implementation of companies and continuing to evaluate transition plans and timelines to ensure that non-discrimination requirements are being implemented as quickly as reasonably possible.

Conclusion

A marriage is a marriage now in Minnesota, 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. 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/.