What Do Employers Need to Know about Offering Domestic Partner Benefits
More and more companies are offering domestic partner benefits, either because they are required to by state law or local ordinances, or because they feel it is in their best interests to do so. Below are some things for employers to consider when thinking about offering domestic partner benefits to their employees.
Defining "Domestic Partners"
A domestic partner is an employee's committed, unmarried partner, whether of the same or opposite sex. A common understanding of a domestic partnership is a relationship recognized as the equivalent to marriage for the purpose of extending employee-partner benefits, which are otherwise reserved for spouses and children of employees.
Employers may want to require individuals applying for domestic partner benefits to meet a set of criteria before qualifying for them. Employers may decide to create their own criteria or they may borrow from local or state definitions. For example, many employers require domestic partners to be registered with a domestic partner registry in order to be eligible for benefits. If the employer's jurisdiction recognizes civil unions or marriage for same-sex partners, employers may require documentation of one of these ceremonies.
If the employer prefers to set its own criteria for eligibility for domestic partner benefits, it may require evidence that:
- The partners are of legal age
- The partners are emotionally and financially interdependent
- The partners are committed
- The partners are exclusive and do not have another partner or spouse
- The partners are not related
In order for domestic partners to prove they qualify for benefits, employers should permit several types of documentation, such as marriage licenses from other countries, partnership affidavits, proof of registration in a domestic partner registry or copies of civil union or marriage certificates.
Employers should consider using language to classify domestic partners broadly to include both same-sex and opposite sex partners. This definition will extend coverage to transgendered persons, who may be subject to state laws that do not permit changing sex status on birth certificates.
Deciding Which Benefits to Offer
In some situations, state or local law will determine which benefits employers must include in their domestic partner benefits package. Otherwise, employers are free to offer any benefits they choose. Historically, employers offering domestic partner benefits primarily provided those that were low-cost, such as sick leave and family leave.
In determining which benefits to offer, employers also should be aware of the impact of federal laws on their decisions. Many federal employment laws that offer protections to employees and regulate benefits do not apply to domestic partnerships.
For example, COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), which requires employers to offer covered employees and their dependents continued health care coverage after certain events, does not require employers to offer these rights to domestic partners and their dependents. Likewise, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides unpaid time off for certain family and medical reasons, does not provide protection to domestic partners. The Act explicitly defines "spouse" as a husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law. Employers may want to extend some of these federal benefits to domestic partners, which would otherwise be unavailable, as part of their benefits package.
For more information on developing a domestic partner benefits plan, contact an experienced employment law attorney in your area. He or she can discuss any local or state laws impacting your plan.
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