Marriage Equality: Thinking About the Business Consequences

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On June 26, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Fourteen Amendment of our Constitution requires a State to license a marriage between two people of the same sex. Same-sex couples in the United States are entitled to the same right to marry as heterosexual couples. The particular state where a same-sex couple resides does not change this right.

While some citizens celebrated this decision and other citizens denounced it, the change in our law will likely create a considerable impact on business. Now that there are no legal impediments to same-sex marriages, we can expect that many businesses will re-evaluate their policies regarding benefits for both spouses and domestic partners. For example, some companies had previously put in place benefits for domestic partners, or same-sex couples who could not legally wed. Some of these, such as cooperative health insurance coverage, are still in place. Yet, as The Washington Post reports, it is not clear whether these benefits will continue to be extended to long-standing couples that do not legally marry. It may no longer be a cost-effective option to offer, especially for small business owners. Similarly, with more individuals applying for spousal benefits, companies may find them too expensive to offer altogether. According to The Wall Street Journal, this is a recent trend that employers have been following to save money. Those businesses already inclined to cut these benefits will likely move forward now that the ruling has taken place. In addition, the timing of any changes in benefits offered by companies to their employees may change as a result of the ruling. For example, some organizations are allowing their employees in same-sex marriages to update their benefits right away, if they were previously married in a state that recognized their union. Traditionally however, benefits can only be changed during an open enrollment period, or when a qualifying event occurs. Marriage is a qualifying event, but for couples previously wed before the Obergefell decision, they may still be required to wait for the open enrollment period before becoming eligible to obtain benefits.