Wal-Mart will offer health coverage to workers' partners starting in 2014

The largest private employer in the United States will provide health insurance to the domestic partners of its U.S. workers starting next year in a major victory for gay rights activists.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, announced this week that it will allow employees' partners to receive health benefits under its insurance plans.

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The decision comes after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal benefits to gay couples that are legally married in their states.

The move also follows pressure from advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which found in a 2013 study that 6 in 10 Fortune 500 companies already offer healthcare coverage to domestic partners.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said that the company chose to adopt a single approach to partner benefits rather than formulate a policy for each state.

"We thought it was important to develop a single definition for all Wal-Mart associates in the U.S.," spokesman David Tovar told Reuters.

The company will define a domestic partnership as a same- or opposite-gender couple that has been in an exclusive relationship for at least 12 months and intends to share a household indefinitely, according to the wire service.

Wal-Mart also said that it would fully cover hip- and knee-joint replacements at certain hospitals, in addition to the free heart and spinal surgeries it already offers.