A California statewide ballot initiative proposal, The Pension Reform Act of 2014 was filed on October 15, 2013. The proposal if passed would amend the California constitution to provide that employees have no vested rights in future pension and retiree health benefit accruals, but only to benefits accrued based on past employment. As such, it would cause the vesting of public retirement plans in California to be more comparable to the vesting of private retirement plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”). The proposal, if adopted, would be particularly significant inasmuch as California has historically been a leader in the recognition of the right of public employees to vesting in future benefit accruals.
Carol V. Calhoun‘s article, “Supreme Court Same-Sex Marriage Decisions Create New Rules for Employee Benefit Plans,” has now been published in Baltimore OUTloud. The article discusses the effect of the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding the Defense of Marriage Act and the subsequent guidance by the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor on employee benefit plans.
Pension plans of businesses and most tax-exempt organizations are subject to federal rules which permit them to discontinue accruals of benefits at any time, so long as previously accrued benefits are preserved. (Internal Revenue Code section 411.) By contrast, pension plans of governmental employers are typically subject to protections under court decisions based on federal or state constitutions provisions forbidding the “impairment of contracts,” which may require the preservation of not only past but future benefit accruals. The leading cases in this area come from California, although courts in other states have often looked to them in interpreting similar constitutional provisions in other states. See, e.g., Betts v. Board of Administration, 21 Cal.3d 859, 864 (1978).
Starting in 2011, California courts have begun applying similar reasoning to the provision of retiree health benefits, as well as pension benefits. In Retired Employees v. Co. of Orange, 52 Cal. 4th 1171, 266 P.3d 287, 134 Cal. Rptr. 3d 779 (2011), the California Supreme Court held that
under California law, a vested right to health benefits for retired county employees can be implied under certain circumstances from a county ordinance or resolution. Whether those circumstances exist in this case is beyond the scope of the question posed to us by the Ninth Circuit.
A recent case from the Los Angeles Superior Court, Los Angeles City Attorneys Association v. City of Los Angeles has provided additional guidance on this issue, although it seems to raise as many questions as it answers.
The Department of Labor has now issued Technical Release No. 2013-04 (September 18, 2013), in which it announces that for purposes of Title 1 of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), the term “spouse” will be read to refer to any individuals who are lawfully married under any state law, including individuals married to a person of the same sex who were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, but who are domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriages. Similarly, the term “marriage” will be read to include a same-sex marriage that is legally recognized as a marriage under any state law. (The latter provision is apparently necessary to deal with marriages that are performed abroad.) Civil unions and domestic partnerships will not, however, be treated as marriages. This corresponds with the position earlier taken by the IRS.
The announcement applies only for purposes of ERISA, however. Face Sheet 28F indicates that the Department of Labor will treat a party to same-sex marriage as a spouse for purposes of the Family & Medical Leave Act only if the state where the employee resides recognizes the marriage.
Today’s Internal Revenue Bulletin includes Announcement 2013-37, which extends the date for filing defined benefit mass submitter lead plans to the IRS from October 31, 2013 to January 31, 2014. This deadline parallels the deadline for other master and prototype defined benefit plans, and is the same as the deadline for individually designed plans that are on Cycle C (including all governmental plans) and volume submitter defined benefit plans.
Since the publication of this article, Treasury and the IRS have announced that any legal same-sex marriage will be recognized for federal tax purposes, regardless of whether the couple’s home state recognizes the marriage. See this post. The Department of Labor has also issued final regulations under the Family & Medical Leave Act which recognize a marriage, regardless of the couple’s domicile, if a) it occurred within the United States, and it was valid in the state in which it took place, and b) it occurred outside of the United States, if it was valid in the jurisdiction in which it took place and it could have been entered into in at least one state.
Federal law requires that employer plans determine marital status in a variety of contexts, ranging from requirements that ERISA-covered retirement plans provide spousal death benefits (e.g., a qualified joint and survivor annuity, qualified preretirement survivor annuity, or payment of the participant’s account balance to the spouse) to COBRA (health care continuation) rights in the event of a divorce or separation. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, it is clear that a same-sex married couple must be treated the same as an opposite-sex married couple for these purposes. But when will a same-sex couple be treated as married? Weeks after the Windsor decision, the few federal agencies that have issued guidance have taken wildly disparate approaches.
The article (the full text of which is available only to Tax Notes subscribers) deals with the fact that the IRS failed to release two 2007 Technical Advice Memoranda (TAMs), which indicated that the annual contributions to a defined benefit plan under a deferred retirement option plan (“DROP“) will be treated as a contribution to a separate defined contribution plan (and thus subject to an annual additions limitation) if the contribution is credited with actual plan earnings. While this position was one we had taken in an article back in 1998, it apparently came as news to many local governments. The article also raises questions about the IRS authority to withhold release of TAMs.
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.
Detroit’s bankruptcy has brought to the fore issues faced by participants in underfunded public (governmental) retirement plans. As explained in an article on CNN, “Just how generous are Detroit’s pensions?”, Detroit’s pension promises as a whole are in line with pensions provided to nongovernmental workers in the area. Nevertheless, as CNN summarizes the situation, “Detroit’s workers and retirees face big cuts.” Why are public workers so vulnerable to the financial troubles of their employers?