Civil unions not the same as marriage when it comes to federal benefits


WASHINGTON — Same-sex couples in a civil union will not be eligible for most federal benefits now available to married, same-sex couples.

In a series of memos released last week, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that same-sex or other couples who are not legally married “will remain ineligible for most federal benefits programs,” although any existing benefits provided to domestic partners “will remain intact.”

The announcement means that the federal government will treat civil unions differently than legal same-sex marriages.

The action by OPM follows the June 26 decision by the Supreme Court which ruled Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. That section of DOMA prohibited the government from recognizing same-sex marriage for purposes of federal benefits programs.

In a memo to federal benefits administrators, John O’Brien, OMP’s Director for Healthcare and Insurance, outlined changes in the status of federal benefits as a result of the DOMA ruling, noting that guidelines will apply to all federal workers, regardless of whether they live in states that have banned same-sex marriage.

That means same sex couples living anywhere in the U.S. will qualify for federal-employee benefits as long as they hold marriage licenses from any of the 13 states or the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal.

The Supreme Court ruling and announcement by OPM invalidate the often used argument by lawmakers opposed to same-sex marriage that civil unions offer the same benefits as marriage, without the title.

Currently, Colorado, Illinois, Hawaii, and New Jersey allow same-sex civil unions.

OPM acknowledged Tuesday that treatment for benefits of same-sex couples and domestic partners outside the federal workforce, including with Social Security, tax and veterans’ benefits have not yet been established.

OPM has given legally married same-sex couples until August 26 to apply for federal-employee benefits and two years to change their status for retirement benefits.

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