Federal judge rules same-sex spouse entitled to death benefits

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Monday that the same-sex spouse—and not the parents—of a deceased city lawyer should receive the proceeds of her firm's profit-sharing plan. Sarah Ellyn Farley and Jennifer Tobits were married in 2006 and soon thereafter Farley was diagnosed with cancer. After her death in 2010, both Tobits and Farley's parents filed claims on her death benefits with her employer, Cozen O'Connor PC [firm website] under the firm's profit-sharing plan. Cozen O'Connor filed an action [text, PDF] in January 2011 to determine whether Tobits or Farley's parents should receive the benefits. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II relied on the recent US Supreme Court [official website] decision in United States v. Windsor [opinion, PDF], which struck down [JURIST report] the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal recognition to legally married same-sex couples. The court reasoned that:

Following the Court's ruling, the term spouse is no longer unconstitutionally restricted to members of the opposite sex, but now rightfully includes those same-sex spouses in "otherwise valid marriages." There can be no doubt that [Tobits] is Ms. Farley's "surviving spouse" under the plan in light of the Supreme Court's decision.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) [advocacy website] Legal Director Shannon Minter, who is representing Tobits, said [press release], "[t]oday's decision is not only a victory for Jennifer and Ellyn, it is a victory for every married same-sex couple in the country. No longer can employers hide behind DOMA to deny equal benefits to some employees solely because their spouse is a person of the same sex."

Since the DOMA ruling in June, courts across the country have been citing the decision. In Michigan a federal judge blocked the state's ban [JURIST report] on domestic partner benefits for employees who work for public schools or local governments. Last week a judge for the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio [official website] ruled [JURIST report] in favor of two men seeking recognition of their out-of-state same-sex marriage. Ohio law prohibits same-sex marriage but recognizes marriages solemnized outside of the state. James Obergefell and his partner, John Arthur, who suffers from a terminal illness, married legally in Maryland earlier this month and returned to Ohio where they have resided for nearly 20 years. Arthur sought to include Obergefell as his surviving spouse on his death certificate.

 

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