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DOMA Struck Down: Update Your LGBT Employee Benefits Policy

The Supreme Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Married gay and lesbian couples are entitled to federal benefits, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a milestone victory for the gay rights movement.

If your company is not already more inclusive of LGBT employees, it's time to update the benefits packages offered to your LGBT employees and their spouses.

Here are a few of the key federal benefits many same-sex couples stand to receive as a result of the DOMA ruling:

  • Survivors' benefits. Same-sex spouses will now be eligible for Social Security survivors' benefits upon the death of a partner, among other forms of assistance, according to a December 2012 report by the Human Rights Campaign.
  • Tax-free employee health insurance. Catching up with the 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies who already offer tax-free employer-provided health benefits to domestic partners, federal law will now make health coverage available to spouses of gay and lesbian employees without taxable strings attached.
  • IRS perks. Same-sex spouses can now claim a host of perks, from estate tax exemptions to head of household deductions. What's more, same-sex spouses can file tax returns jointly, avoiding additional strain on wallets.
  • Emergency leave. The guarantees provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act will soon become available to same-sex spouses.
  • Greed cards and visas. Gay and lesbian couples may now lobby the federal government for green cards or visas for a non-American same-sex partner if they got married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage.

Though gay couples stand to receive thousands of benefits in the wake of the DOMA ruling, things can get complicated depending on where your employee got married and where he or she resides.

Because government agencies follow contradictory statutes and regulations, gay couples living in the 38 states that don't recognize same-sex marriage may only be treated to a fraction of the federal spousal benefits, reports NBC News.

The IRS, for example, would award estate tax exemptions to gay spouses based solely on laws in the state where they live -- no dice for gay couples living in states with bans on same-sex marriages.

"Different federal programs have different standards," said Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group. "It's murky."

One more example, if your employee got hitched in Massachusetts and lives in Massachusetts, he or she will have access to these benefits immediately. But if the employee got married in Massachusetts and lives in Alabama, he or she could receive some benefits, but not others. It's uncertain.

Matters will simplify if the federal government adopts the "place of celebration standard," which places the benefits eligibility criteria on where a couple holds their wedding ceremony. But another way to simplify the process is to take the initiative yourself.

Today, the last day the court convened for this term, crowds erupted in cheers just after 10 a.m. as the court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act.

In that spirit, update your policies to reflect greater workplace equality. It's one thing to do the bare minimum to comply with law, it's another thing to go the extra mile and show every employee that he or she is valued and respected.

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