New FMLA Rule Defining “Spouse” Based on Marriage “Place of Celebration” Rather Than Employee’s “State of Residence”

Same-Sex-CouplesOn February 25, 2015, the Department of Labor published updated FMLA rules pursuant to which employees in legal, same-sex marriages, regardless of where they live, will have the same rights as those in opposite-sex marriages to federal job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Originally enacted in 1993, the FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. Employees are, for example, entitled to take FMLA leave to care for a spouse who has a serious health condition.

This rule change updates the FMLA regulatory definition of “spouse” so that an eligible employee in a legal same-sex marriage will be able to take FMLA leave for his or her spouse regardless of the state in which the employee resides. The new rules are effective March 27, 2015.  Previously, the regulatory definition of “spouse” did not include same-sex spouses if an employee resided in a state that did not recognize the employee’s same-sex marriage. Under the new rule, eligibility for federal FMLA protections is based on the law of the place where the marriage was entered into.

This “place of celebration” rule brings FMLA into alignment with the rules applicable to qualified retirement plans since the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision in 2013.

We recommend that employers review and update their FMLA policies to ensure compliance with the new rules.  In addition, while it is still theoretically permissible for employers to use a different definition of “spouse” for purposes of welfare benefit plans, such as medical, dental, life, and disability (because ERISA does not require spousal coverage under those plans), we recommend that employers seriously consider aligning their definition of “spouse” for all purposes.

icon The Final Rule

icon DOL FAQs

icon DOL Fact Sheet