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Understanding Employment Benefits For Same-Sex Couples In California

Recent changes in federal and state laws are leading to expanded employment benefits for gay and lesbian couples. While same-sex marriage has been legal in California since 2013, last June's U.S. Supreme Court ruling that expanded same-sex marriage rights across the country is having an impact here in California.

California employers must now treat employees in same-sex and opposite-sex marriages equally for both federal and state law purposes.

Here are six things you should know about employment benefits for same-sex couples:

  1. Cobra coverage: Same-sex spouses have COBRA election rights to continue insurance coverage for a limited period of time under certain circumstances, including job loss and divorce.
  2. ERISA benefits plans: Same-sex spouses have the same rights as opposite-sex spouses to ERISA retirement plans, health plans and other workplace benefits.
  3. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA): Same-sex spouses are considered a spouse/family member for purposes of taking FMLA leave.
  4. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA): Special insurance enrollment rights under HIPAA apply to same-sex couples. This means a same-sex spouse can sign up for insurance outside of the annual enrollment window in certain situations, such as a new marriage or a loss of benefits from one's employers.
  5. Flexible spending accounts: Eligible employees may use their tax-free flexible spending accounts (FSA), health savings accounts (HAS) and health reimbursement accounts (HRA) for the expenses of same-sex spouses.
  6. Health plan taxes: Health plan benefits provided to an employee's spouse are not subject to state or federal income taxes. This means that an eligible employee can pay for a same-sex spouse's coverage on a pre-tax basis.

What If You Are In A Domestic Partnership?

Do couples in domestic partnerships receive the same benefits as those who are married? California law protects registered domestic partners, both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, by providing them the same rights, protections and benefits that are granted to spouses. This means, for example, that California's family leave laws apply equally to those who are married and those who are in registered domestic partnerships. California law also requires equal health insurance benefits for spouses and domestic partners.

However, domestic partners may not be eligible for the federal benefits and protections, listed above. The federal laws are written to protect spouses only.

At the Bay Area law firm of Gwilliam Ivary Chiosso Cavalli & Brewer, we have decades of experience practicing both employment law and business law. We would be happy to answer your questions during a free consultation. Call 510-832-5411 or reach us online today.

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