Our Pittsburgh family lawyers today are talking about a federal judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania who declared that the inheritance benefits of a female partner at the law firm Cozen O’ Connor should be paid out to her wife, and not to her parents. The district judge determined that in light of the recent Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision in U.S. v. Windsor, there is no question that Sarah Farley, the lawyer and her wife Jennifer Tobits were married and therefore entitled to ERISA (federal law governing minimum standards for pension plans) benefits to be shared between them. Because Farley and Tobits were residing in Illinois at the time of her death, a state which subsequently recognized same-sex marriages, even though the plan was administered in Pennsylvania, the two would be defined as married under the terms of the plan. Because the definition of marriage within ERISA would be the federal conception of marriage, that definition preempts the Pennsylvania definition which defines marriage as between a man and a woman, even though the choice of law provision within the plan specifies that Pennsylvania law applies.
Farley and Tobits were married in Canada, and then moved to Illinois. Farley died in 2010, before Illinois legalized civil unions and recognized same-sex marriages performed in other states in 2011. However, the federal judge determined that the ruling in U.S. v. Windsor would retroactively apply, and that because now their marriage would be recognized in Illinois, it should apply for the purposes of the ERISA statute.
This decision could have very important implications for family law in the United States. First, this means that the statute can be retroactively applied in these types of cases. Even though this woman died before same-sex marriage and civil unions were recognized by the state in which she lived, her surviving spouse was able to use the newfound Federal recognition of same-sex marriage to claim her benefits under federal law. Moreover, the court enforced a private agreement with a choice of law provision from a state that does not recognize same sex marriage. This is important because it means that the federal preemption applies to topics governing federal law even when a contract between private parties specifies a state law application.
In terms of Pennsylvania law, this does not yet have much effect, because the ruling was still narrowed to only apply because of residence in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages and civil unions. However, this could be important for national businesses operating in Pennsylvania with offices in other states, if it survives on appeal.
Contact our Pittsburgh family lawyers today to discuss your family law case!