As described in a previous article, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Windsor case (which overturned the federal prohibition on recognition of same-sex marriages) has created a muddled situation in instances in which one or more relevant jurisdictions recognize same-sex marriage, but other(s) do not. The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has now issued a decision that extends marriage rights in one such situation.
In the case at issue, Sarah Ellyn Farley worked for a Pennysylvania law firm. Pennsylvania does not recognize same-sex marriage. In February of 2006, she married Jean Tobits in Toronto, Canada. Shortly after her wedding, Ms. Farley was diagnosed with cancer. She died on September 13, 2010. At the time of Ms. Farley’s death, the couple resided in Illinois, which does not permit same-sex marriage there, but which recognizes same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions under the state’s civil unions law.
As required by ERISA, the law firm’s retirement plan provided that an employee’s spouse would receive a death benefit (a qualified preretirement survivor annuity) under the plan unless both the employee and the spouse had waived the benefit. Ms. Tobits had never waived the benefit. Thus, the question was whether she was Ms. Farley’s spouse for purposes of the plan. The court held that she was.
The case is notable because neither the employer’s place of business nor the couple’s domicile provided for same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, because the marriage was valid in the jurisdiction in which it was performed and was recognized (albeit as a civil union) in the couple’s domicile, it was held to be valid for ERISA purposes.