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DOL Issues Final Rule Amending FMLA Definition of “Spouse” to Include Same-Sex Marriages

The U.S. Department of Labor has issued a final rule amending the regulatory definition of “spouse” under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  We earlier reported on the DOL’s proposed rule to this effect, which is now final and will become effective on March 27, 2015. 

The amendment changes the definition of “spouse” to include individuals in same-sex marriages if the marriage was valid in the place it was entered into regardless of where they live.  Before the new rule was issued, the FMLA and its accompanying regulations defined “spouse” as a husband or wife as recognized under the laws of the state in which the employee resides.  The new definition of spouse instead looks to the law of the jurisdiction in which the marriage was entered into and expressly encompasses same-sex married couples.  The final rule thus adopts a “place of celebration” rule rather than a “state of residence” rule for the definition of “spouse” under the FMLA.

According to the DOL, the amended regulatory definition of spouse permits “eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages [to] be able to take FMLA leave to care for their spouse or family member, regardless of where they live.”  The DOL has also suggested that the new rule will reduce the administrative burden on multi-state employers, who no longer have to consider an employee’s state of residence and the laws of that state in determining the employee’s eligibility for FMLA leave.

The new rule was prompted by the United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, which found unconstitutional those provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriages. 

Some of the other features of the new rule include:

  • The new rule encompasses an employee in a same-sex marriage entered into abroad as long as the marriage is valid in the place it was entered into and could have been entered into in at least one state in the United States.

  • The new rule encompasses employees in a common law marriage as long as the common law marriage became valid in a state that recognizes such common law marriage.

  • An employee in a legal same-sex marriage can now take FMLA leave to care for his or her stepchild whereas before, an employee in a legal same-sex marriage could only take FMLA leave to care for his or her stepchild for whom the employee stood in loco parentis.

  • Similarly, an employee can now take FMLA to care for his stepparent who is the employee’s parent’s same-sex spouse, even if the stepparent never stood in loco parentis to the employee.

Copyright © 2022, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP.National Law Review, Volume V, Number 58

About this Author

Shira Forman, Labor Law Attorney, Sheppard Mullin Law Firm

Shira Forman is an associate in the Labor and Employment Practice Group in the firm's New York office.

Ms. Forman focuses her practice on the full spectrum of labor and employment disputes in areas including breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, wrongful termination, retaliation, wage and hour claims, and claims of discrimination based on disability, sex, pregnancy, age, race, and national origin.

She also advises employers on day-to-day personnel matters, including hiring and separations, performance management, wage and hour compliance, drafting employee handbooks...