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Same-Sex Spouse Entitled to Pension Survivor Benefits

Close up of Judge gavel deciding on marriage divorce and two golden marriage ring.
By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

In case there were any doubts, if your company offers employees a pension and that pension has survivor benefits for a retired employee's spouse, then same-sex married couples are entitled to receive the same benefits as opposite-sex married couples. And if your state offered domestic partnership before same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, in all likelihood, domestic partners are entitled to the same benefits as a spouse.

Recently, the widow of a deceased television station employee in California won a significant court battle requiring his spouse's former employer pay him the survivor benefit under the pension (a mere 50 percent of the pension). The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals explained that he and the deceased retiree became domestic partners well before retirement, and that under California law, domestic partners have the same rights as married persons, meaning that the television station couldn't deny the surviving same-sex spouse the survivor benefit.

Benefits for All, If Promised

In the TV station retirement benefits case, the couple had registered as domestic partners in 2004, and in 2009, the longtime station employee retired. Five years later, and after same-sex marriage was legalized, the couple officially married. Sadly, that happened just days before the retired employee died, and when his surviving spouse tried to claim the survivor benefits of the pension, he was denied.

Despite having just been recently married, he was told that the plan did not consider domestic partners to be spouses. Making matters worse, the federal district court ruled that the TV station's retirement administrator did not make an error. However, after going up the Ninth Circuit, the appellate court explained that the retirement administrator’s failure to treat domestic partners equal to spouses violated California law. The appellate court order the lower court to order the pension plan administrator to pay survivor benefit of the pension.

Don't Discriminate in Benefits

Regardless of your personal beliefs, when a business takes any action, if that action is motivated by discrimination, even discrimination that the business is unaware of (such as implicit bias), there could be exposure to liability. Although this retirement benefits case wasn't a discrimination case, per se, it sure walked, talked, and quacked like one.

If you're concerned about whether your business’s benefits may be discriminatory, don't wait until it's too late to consult with an experienced business attorney to review your benefits and policies.

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