Benefits extended to same-sex spouses of federal workers

Same-sex spouses of federal employees will be able to take advantage of their partner's health insurance and retirement benefits, according to new federal guidance issued on Friday.

Just two days after the Supreme Court gutted a key section of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government is taking steps to extend benefits to spouses of all of its employees, regardless of their sex.

Elaine Kaplan, acting director of the Office of Personnel Management, sent a memorandum to heads of agencies and departments across the federal government outlining the benefits to which same-sex spouses are now entitled. Among those are healthcare coverage, life insurance and retirement benefits.

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"There are numerous benefits that are affected by the Supreme Court’s decision, and it is impossible to answer today every question that you may have," she wrote, noting that the office will be issuing additional guidance in the future.

"Nevertheless," she added, "I want to assure you that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is committed to working with the Department of Justice to ensure swift and seamless implementation of the Court’s ruling."

In a statement after the guidance was issued, Attorney General Eric Holder said that it "represents a historic step toward equality for all American families"

"By extending health insurance and other important benefits to federal employees and their families, regardless of whether they are in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages, the Obama Administration is making real the promise of this important decision," he added.

Holder has been tasked with coordinating federal agencies' response to the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision overturning the law limiting the federal definition of marriage to between a man and a woman.

That means evaluating how to change the more than 1,000 statutes that deal with Americans' marital status, including taxes, Social Security coverage, healthcare and immigration, just to name a few.

Friday's guidance only refers to employees "who have legally married a spouse of the same sex," and does not distinguish between married couples who live in states where same-sex marriages are recognized and those who were legally married in the District Columbia or the 13 states that recognize the marriage but have since moved elsewhere.

The ambiguity in that distinction has raised questions about further implementation of the court's decision.

Under the terms of Kaplan's memorandum, federal government employees will have until Aug. 26, 60 days from the court's ruling on June 26, to make immediate changes to their insurance coverage options to account for their same-sex spouse. They have until June 26, 2015, to make any changes to their retirement benefits.