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Labor Dept.: Same-sex spouses have benefit rights

BY SAM HANANEL, ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Legally married same-sex couples enjoy the same federal rights as other married couples when it comes to pensions, 401(k)s, health plans and other employee benefits, even if they live in states that don't recognize their union, the Labor Department said Wednesday.

The new guidance is the latest effort by the Obama administration to clarify questions left unanswered after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in June which invalidated part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. The interpretation is consistent with a ruling from the Internal Revenue Service last month that legally married gay couples can file joint federal tax returns even if they reside in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages.

"This decision represents a historic step toward equality for all American families, and I have directed the department's agency heads to ensure that they are implementing the decision in a way that provides maximum protection for workers and their families," said Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

The agency said the terms "spouse" and "marriage" in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act should be read to include same-sex couples regardless of where they currently reside. That means a gay couple that marries legally in Minnesota or New York can still participate equally in retirement and other federal employee benefits if they move to Florida, where gay marriage is not legal.

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