Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

June 25,  2007  



Ballot measures triggering an expansion of benefits

By Thomas F. Coleman

Ballot measures against same sex marriage adopted by voters in Michigan and Kentucky are having an impact on employee benefits in those states.  However, rather than forcing domestic partner benefits to be discontinued, the voter-approved measures are causing benefits plans to be expanded to include additional beneficiaries.

In Michigan, for example, the Court of Appeal ruled last February that a ballot measure adopted in that state prohibited government agencies from expanding spousal benefits to unmarried heterosexual and gay couples.  However, the court noted a loophole in the law which would allow benefits to be given to household members of government workers.

Michigan State University, which had been operating a benefits plan for same-sex couples, reacted to the ruling by reshaping its plan.  The new plan will start on July 1.

Instead of calling the beneficiaries "domestic partners," the new plan extends benefits to "other eligible individuals." 

In order to fit this category, a person must have lived with an employee for 18 months without being either a tenant or a legal dependent. The person also can’t be automatically eligible to inherit the employee’s assets under Michigan law, which means blood relatives are not eligible.

So who are these other eligible individuals?.  Basically, most of them would be romantically involved unmarried couples, gay or straight, as well as platonic friends and roommates.

The City of Kalamazoo, which also had a same-sex benefits plan for its workers, is now considering a similar "loophole" plan. City commissioners will review the new plan on June 29.

Meanwhile, the University of Kentucky has been grappling with a similar issue.  A domestic partner benefits plan -- for same and opposite-sex couples -- was recently adopted by University Trustees.  However, the state Attorney General ruled that such a benefits plan would conflict with a voter-passed law prohibiting same-sex marriage or anything similar.

The Attorney General opinion, much like the Michigan appellate decision, highlighted an escape hatch available to the University if it wanted to expand benefits to those in non-spousal relationships.  Benefits for household members is the answer.

In order to avoid a lawsuit by the Attorney General, University Trustees have voted to expand benefits eligibility to any one adult dependent who lives with the employee.

"[I]t honors our goal of trying to provide affordable health care coverage to our employees and their dependents as part of our efforts to create an attractive and more competitive compensation package for our faculty and staff,” University President Lee Todd said in a statement to the press.

The University of Kentucky is one of two public colleges in that state offering partner benefits. A spokesperson the other college, the University of Louisville, said that the school is studying the Attorney General's opinion and considering whether or not to expand its benefits plan.

Several years ago, the University of California faced a slightly different, but similar dilemma.  Trustees initially voted to grant benefits to same-sex couples but not to heterosexual couples.

When the state Labor Commissioner ruled that same-sex benefits would violate a state law prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in employment, Trustees responded by expanding the class of eligible beneficiaries also to include dependent blood relatives.  Then, after the passage of several years, Trustees expanded eligibility criteria to include unmarried opposite-sex couples as well.

The tug-of-war over employee benefits programs in Michigan and Kentucky has implications for benefits plans in other parts of the nation.  The Nevada Public Employee Benefits Program Board, for example, is considering three options for expanding benefits. 

The first would expand coverage only to same-sex couples. The second would add unmarried opposite-sex partners. The third, which is an option to avoid a conflict with the voter-approved anti same-sex marriage law in that state, would allow the employee to select one adult household member to be eligible as a dependent.

Dozens of other states also have constitutional amendments or statutes prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Many of these laws are worded broadly enough to arguably prohibit benefits plans for domestic partners. 

So the legal loophole in Michigan and the statutory escape hatch in Kentucky may be appealing to a large number of benefits administrators and personnel managers who are looking for a way to expand benefits eligibility beyond those who are legally married.

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© Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.