On April 4, 2014, the IRS issued Notice 2014-19, requiring that qualified retirement plans apply “spouse” and “marriage” to same-sex spouses just as the plan would to opposite-sex spouses and establishing criteria for what plan amendments are needed and the timing for doing so.
In September of 1996, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which provided that same-sex marriages would not be recognized under federal law. On June 26, 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the Windsor case that DOMA’s treatment of such marriages was unconstitutional. Following Windsor, the IRS issued Revenue Ruling 2013-17 on August 29, 2013 (effective September 16, 2013), requiring same-sex marriages legally performed under state law to be recognized for federal tax purposes in any state regardless of whether the state recognizes the validity of same-sex marriages. This Revenue Ruling further provided that individuals who entered into registered domestic partnerships, civil unions, or other similar relationships under state law did not qualify as “spouses” and that these relationships did not qualify as “marriages” for federal tax purposes.
The newly issued April 4 Notice gives further guidance respecting qualified retirement plans on a wide range of subjects including qualified joint and survivor annuity rules, the Retirement Equity Act’s spousal beneficiary safeguards, required minimum distribution calculations and timing, control group determinations, ESOP rules, and the QDRO exceptions to the Code’s anti-alienation rules.
The new IRS Notice describes when qualified retirement plans must be in administrative and documentary compliance with Windsor and the August 2013 Revenue Ruling. Plan sponsors and recordkeepers must have been administering their retirement plans consistent with Windsor as of June 26, 2013, even if these plans did not contemplate valid same-sex marriages. The corollary to this is that failing to recognize same-sex marriages before June 26, 2013, will not disqualify a plan. Furthermore, because last summer’s Revenue Ruling was not effective until September 16, 2013, there will be no risk of disqualification during the gap period between the effective date of Windsor and September 16 for plans that recognized same-sex marriages only if a participant was domiciled in a state that recognized same-sex marriages. The IRS further clarified that plan sponsors could operate their plans prior to June 26, 2013 to reflect Windsor on some or all qualification requirements without risk of disqualification so long as the basic qualification rules were satisfied, i.e., plan sponsors could be more generous than the Code required if it was feasible administratively.
From a documentation standpoint, all qualified retirement plans must be consistent with Windsor and both the IRS Revenue Ruling and the new Notice. Depending on how a plan uses or defines the terms “spouse” and “marriage,” plan amendments may or may not be needed. If a plan uses or defines these terms in a neutral manner without reference to “opposite-sex” or DOMA and they can be reasonably construed in harmony with Windsor and the IRS guidance, then no plan amendment is likely needed. However, if a plan couches the terms “spouse” and “marriage” in accordance with DOMA or inconsistently with Windsor, then the plan will need to be amended retroactively to June 26, 2013 to maintain its qualified status.
The deadline for adopting any needed amendments is generally going to be December 31, 2014, although for some plan sponsors, the amendment deadline could be later depending on their unique circumstances.
In response to Notice 2014-19, plan sponsors will need to review the terms of their retirement plans to ensure each plan contains a proper definition of “spouse” and “marriage” and to timely amend their plans, as necessary. Additionally, plan sponsors should confirm the administrative aspects of their plans with their recordkeepers. Based on all of this, Notice 2014-19 is welcome news as it provides certainty: individuals can better plan their benefits and retirements, recordkeepers can confidently begin any needed programming and website changes, and plan sponsors can undertake any needed revisions to their plan documents, summary plan descriptions and other communications.