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Does DOMA Prevent Pension Benefits for Surviving Same-Sex Spouses?

Because of DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), employers can disregard the rights of an LGBT employee’s partner as a legitimate beneficiary of his or her employee’s pension funds. The federal definition of “spouse” (according to DOMA) is an opposite-sex husband or wife. Therefore, the spousal protections in Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) don’t apply to same-sex partners, even when they’re legally married, in a civil union, or registered as domestic partners.

Currently, it is unclear whether a private employer is restricted by DOMA’s definition of spouse to recognize a same-sex partner’s right to a deceased employees benefits.

Currently, a case involving the private pension benefits of a lesbian employee (who married her partner in Canada but didn’t designate her partner as the beneficiary of her pension benefits) is winding its way through the court system. Literally, the night before their daughter died, her parents coerced her into signing a form designating them as the beneficiary of their daughter’s pension benefits.

Because DOMA restricts ERISA’s applicability, the question before the court is whether the employer can recognize their deceased employee’s same-sex spouse as the rightful beneficiary with further right to be notified of and authorize a change of beneficiary. A ruling in this case is still pending and is expected to be handed down in the next few months.

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