Workers in legal, same-sex marriages – no matter what state they live in – will now have the same rights as those in opposite-sex marriages to federal job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Department of Labor announced this week.

The move updates the FMLA definition of the term ‘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. “This guidance allows employers to administer [federal] benefits on a consistent basis,” says Lisa Van Fleet, a partner in the employee benefits and executive compensation client service group at law firm Bryan Cave, in St. Louis, Missouri. Van Fleet advises employers to review relevant notices, employee handbooks and policies and update them if needed.

“For FMLA purposes, employers are on solid ground now in using the same rules they use to define ‘spouse’ for tax purposes, qualified plan purposes and health plan purposes,” she says.

Also see: Re-examine definition of ‘spouse’ in all plan documents

And while Van Fleet acknowledges there could be some cost associated with updating policies, handbooks and notices, as well as the cost of the leave itself, she believes most employers will view the DOL’s move positively. “Regardless of where someone falls on this philosophically, from an administrative standpoint, it should actually be viewed as simplifying the administration [of FMLA],” she says.

The effective date for the final rule is March 27, 2015.

Also see: Employer reactions to DOMA decision

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