Washington's new domestic partnership law giving registered domestic partners all the rights and responsibilities of spouses under state law takes effect on December 3, 2009. Have you amended your policies accordingly? Read further to find out how you might be affected.
What Domestic Partnerships are Covered by The Law?
Two types of couples can register with the State under the new domestic partnership law: same sex couples and opposite sex couples where one person is over the age of 62. The law also protects domestic partners who are registered in other states.
What about Unregistered Domestic Partners?
The law does not provide any legal rights to domestic partners that have not registered with the State. However, nothing in the law prevents employers from providing benefits to unregistered domestic partners, and many continue to do so.
Does Our Employee Life or Health Insurance Policy Have to Cover Domestic Partners?
Yes, the Insurance Commissioner has interpreted the law to mean that insurance policies "must be administered in a manner that treats registered domestic partners the same as married spouses." Therefore, if any of the insurance policies you provide to your employees provide coverage or benefits to married spouses, they must also provide coverage to registered domestic partners.
Does Our Insurance Policy Have to be Amended?
The Insurance Commissioner is not requiring insurers to amend insurance policies, as long as they are interpreting "spouse" to include a registered domestic partner.
Does the Law Affect Pension and Retirement Plans?
Pension and retirement plans are governed by a federal law, ERISA, that generally preempts any state regulation of those plans.
Does the Law Impact Fully Self-Insured Health and Welfare Plans?
Although ERISA preempts state regulations related to employee benefit plans, states are allowed to regulate insurance. Private employers that purchase insurance are thus subject to the domestic partnership law because the state Insurance Commissioner appears to be treating the law as an insurance regulation. In addition, non-ERISA plans (governmental and church plans) are not subject to ERISA preemption and therefore are subject to state regulation in most instances. However, fully self-insured employee health and welfare benefit plans under ERISA are not generally subject to state law, and thus are likely exempt from domestic partnership regulations relating to employee benefit plans. Pending federal legislation may change this, so stay tuned.
How does the Law Impact Family Leaves?
Washington state statutory leaves, like family care leave, family and medical leave, spousal military leave, and domestic violence leave now cover registered domestic partners of employees on the same terms as spouses. Employers must modify their policies and postings regarding these leaves to include registered domestic partners.
What are the Tax Issues?
If an employee attempts to enroll his or her domestic partner for health coverage, the employee must state whether the domestic partner meets the requirements under federal tax law to be a dependent of the employee as a "qualifying relative." If the domestic partner does not meet those requirements, the value of the health coverage must be included in the employee's taxable income. Pending federal legislation may also change this rule.
What about COBRA?
The new law does not require employers to provide COBRA to registered domestic partners. However, neither state nor federal prohibit an employer from offering domestic partners a COBRA-like benefit voluntarily.
For more information about issues in this alert, contact the Stoel Rives attorney with whom you regularly consult. For a list of attorneys in the Employee Benefits group, click here. For a list of attorneys in the Labor and Employment group, click here.