Spouses with benefits

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Now that same-sex marriage is legal in over 70 percent of the US, some couples are being pushed towards the altar by an unexpected source: their insurance companies.

Within certain limits, employers have the legal right to decide for themselves who is eligible for the benefits they offer. In the interest of fairness, in the 1980s and 90s some companies began offering coverage policies especially for couples that were legally barred from marrying, recognizing that laws can’t dictate what a family looks like. Times have changed, though, and in states where all couples can marry, some companies with domestic partner policies are starting to find them redundant.

An article published in PBS noted that of those companies requiring same-sex couples to marry in order to keep their spousal benefits, “most” give them a reasonable amount of time to tie the knot. For example, a spokesman for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield said that shortly after New York began allowing marriage equality, the company began phasing out its domestic partner benefits, but gave same-sex couples “a year and a quarter to get married.”

The director of HRC’s workplace equality program, Deena Fidas, told Kaiser Health News that among larger companies, the number of businesses changing their benefit policies is a small minority. She explained, “many employers operating in multiple states…are retaining their partner benefit structures,” because some states still ban same-sex marriage.

While the legal advantages of marriage usually include financial benefits, older couples especially may face a dilemma: remarrying can mean being disqualified for Social Security income, such as survivor benefits. According to the official Social Security Website, “If you remarry before you reach age 60 (age 50 if disabled), you cannot receive benefits as a surviving spouse while you are married.”

Currently, the future of unmarried partner policies is uncertain. Some states, such as California, bar employers from discriminating against same-sex couples, but requiring that all couples be legally married in order to qualify for benefits is not considered a form of discrimination. PBS also noted that of those companies now requiring a marriage license, only “most” of them are limiting those policies to within states that have marriage equality. It raises the question of whether some businesses are or will be requiring couples to travel out of state to marry—a trip that not everyone is willing or able to make.

On a Know Your Rights page, Lambda Legal noted, “the law in this area is still evolving.” Many employers offer benefits beyond what is required by law simply because regardless of legal status, “Providing benefits to same-sex partners is fair, and it is good business. That is why 62% of Fortune 500 (or Fortune 1,000) companies offer equal benefits as a matter of voluntary corporate policy. They want to attract and retain the best talent, and they want to act consistently with their stated commitment to equal employment opportunity.”

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Just another multi-disciplinary writer and bundle of contradictions trying to figure out how to get the most out of life, and make a living while I'm at it.

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