Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that earlier this month a federal judge overturned North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage. On Oct. 10 U.S. District Court judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. ruled in General Synod of the United Church of Christ v. Cooper that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, paving the way for same-sex marriages to begin immediately in North Carolina. Four days later, another federal judge ruling on a separate suit also held that North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
But what does that mean for same-sex spouses who are employees of NC State?
“It means, first of all, that same-sex spouses of employees are now eligible for coverage under the State Health Plan and the NCFlex program,” says Joe Williams, director of benefits and programs for Human Resources at NC State. The State Health Plan provides medical insurance, and NCFlex provides a range of associated benefits including dental care, vision care and flexible spending accounts that allow participants to pay for health care expenses and/or dependent day care costs on a pretax basis.
Although North Carolina did not allow same-sex marriages before Oct. 10, if a same-sex couple was legally married in another state before that date, North Carolina now recognizes that marriage as legal. Thus, if one member of that couple is an NC State employee, his or her spouse can now be included for health care and NCFlex benefit coverage.
“In those cases, the judge’s ruling will be considered a ‘qualifying life event,’ which allows employees to make changes to their benefits, according to guidance we have received from the State Health Plan,” Williams says.
As with all qualifying life events, employees have 30 days from the event — which, in this case, took place on Oct. 10, 2014, the date of the judge’s ruling — to enroll their same-sex spouses for benefits. Coverage for the newly enrolled spouse would go into effect on Nov. 1, 2014, if they enroll within the 30-day limit.
For same-sex couples who get legally married in North Carolina (or elsewhere) at any time after the judge’s ruling, then the marriage itself is the qualifying life event that allows an employee’s spouse to be enrolled in benefits. The employee would again have 30 days from the qualifying life event — in this case, the date of the marriage — to enroll their spouse, and coverage would take effect on the first of the following month.
“Just as with any marriage, a marriage certificate is required as documentation of that life event,” Williams notes.
Given that the state’s annual benefits enrollment period for next year (2015) is also now under way through Oct. 31, employees may elect spouse coverage now as a qualifying event, or they may enroll their spouse during annual enrollment for coverage beginning Jan. 1 of next year.
“Whether or not an employee wants to add their same-sex spouse for the rest of 2014, they can still add their spouse as part of annual enrollment, and the coverage will become effective on Jan. 1, 2015,” Williams says.
Same-sex couples who were legally married before the judge’s ruling should pay close attention to the relevant deadlines. If you don’t enroll your spouse within thirty days of the judge’s ruling (for 2014 coverage) or by the end of annual enrollment (for 2015 coverage) — which closes on Oct. 31, 2014 — you won’t be able to enroll them until either another qualifying life event occurs or the next annual enrollment period opens in October 2015.
“We’re also encouraging people in same-sex marriages to review their beneficiaries for life insurance and retirement plans as a result of this change and update their designations as well,” Williams says.
He foresees that the change will support NC State’s competitiveness as a higher education employer. Many other large research universities around the country already offer such benefits for same-sex spouses.
“Our office gets calls from potential faculty and staff who are considering taking a job here, and they want to learn more about the benefit package first,” he says. “This change will put the university on more equal footing with our peer and competitor institutions who are also recruiting top faculty and staff.”
More information about same-sex marriage benefits for NC State employees is available online.