Same-Sex Spouses Eligible for Benefits Regardless of Residency

Army Capt. Michael Potoczniak, left, and Todd Saunders, of El Cerrito, Calif., show their wedding rings after they exchanged vows at City Hall in San Francisco. Army Capt. Michael Potoczniak, left, and Todd Saunders, of El Cerrito, Calif., show their wedding rings after they exchanged vows at City Hall in San Francisco. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Same-sex spouses of legally married feds and retirees are eligible for health and retirement benefits regardless of which state they live in, according to new federal guidance.

Gay marriage currently is legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court last month overturned Section 3 of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman and prevented same-sex spouses of federal employees and retirees from accessing benefits available to opposite-sex spouses of government workers. The decision means that the government will extend benefits coverage to same-sex federal spouses and children, even if they live in a state where gay marriage is banned, provided they have a legal marriage license.

Domestic partners of feds and those in civil unions still are not eligible for most benefits, though they are able to access federal long-term care insurance.

As a result of the Supreme Court decision, all legally married same-sex couples are now eligible for self and family enrollment in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Same-sex spouses of feds and retirees also are eligible for life insurance under the Federal Employees Group Life Insurance, long-term care coverage, retirement benefits and flexible spending accounts. Same-sex spouses and their children will be treated the same as heterosexual married families for benefits’ purposes, the Office of Personnel Management stated in its guidance.

Employees can make immediate enrollment changes by Aug. 26, or again during Open Season in November. Already-enrolled employees can enroll their same-sex spouse effective immediately upon notifying their FEHB provider. All federal retirees in a legal same-sex marriage have two years from June 26 -- the date of the Supreme Court’s decision -- to notify OPM of the marriage and elect any changes to their retirement benefits. While OPM is currently working on additional guidance to help retirees determine whether they should adjust their pension benefits, the agency has made clear that “going forward, the same-sex spouse of retiring employees will be eligible for survivor annuities.”

OPM sent letters last week to insurance carriers about extending health, dental and vision coverage to same-sex spouses and children of feds and annuitants, underscoring the need for equity. “Carriers will be cautioned against imposing any new rules in response to the Supreme Court’s decision that could be seen as having either the purpose or effect of creating barriers to enrollment for legally married same-sex couples,” stated the July 3 benefits administration letter from OPM’s John O’Brien, director of healthcare and insurance.

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