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Wisconsin Federal Court Recognizes Same-Sex Marriage: How Does This Affect the Administration of an Employer’s Employee Benefits?

On Friday, June 6, 2014, Judge Crabb of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin issued a decision finding that Wisconsin’s constitutional amendment recognizing marriages only between men and women violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Unlike several other federal judges who have considered the issue, Judge Crabb did not make her ruling immediately effective. Instead the Court asked the plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case to help her fashion an injunction to implement her ruling. The plaintiffs have until June 16, 2014, to submit this proposal. The State asked for clarification on the June 6, 2014 ruling and requested that the court stay its decision until it made a final decision on the scope of the injunctive relief. On June 9, 2014, the court denied the State’s motion. In response, the State appealed Judge Crabb’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago and requested an immediate stay of Judge Crabb’s order. The Seventh Circuit has solicited arguments from the parties to determine whether it has jurisdiction of the matter.

In response to Judge Crabb’s decision, many of the State’s counties have begun issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the state. Others have declined to do so and have, instead, sought guidance from counsel or the Attorney General.

Addressing the Change

Judge Crabb’s decision, and issuance of Wisconsin same-sex marriage licenses, has injected some uncertainty into benefit plan administration in Wisconsin. Based upon the state of the prior law, it is likely that a Wisconsin employer will have more employees with domestic partners than employees with same-sex spouses through legal marriages formed elsewhere. Nevertheless, same-sex benefits are certainly an evolving issue for employers.

Family and Medical Leave

Registered and unregistered domestic partners were already covered under the Wisconsin Family and Medical Leave Act. Because an unregistered domestic partnership does not require a formal filing with a county clerk, it appears that the state law in this context is relatively unaffected.

On the other hand, the federal FMLA is substantially affected. The definition of spouse under the federal regulations requires that the marriage must be recognized by the state of residence. Most FMLA policies do not distinguish between same-sex and opposite-sex partners. Consequently, if Judge Crabb’s decision stands, requests for FMLA leave relating to same-sex spouses must be recognized under both federal and Wisconsin law if the leave is otherwise appropriate under the law.

Until the ramifications of the injunctive language are known, employers should pay particular attention to the language of their FMLA policies before making any determination about FMLA requests. Depending on how the courts ultimately rule, an employer’s FMLA policy may or may not require amendment. Regardless, if an employee asks about leave for a same-sex spouse, legal counsel should be consulted.


The status of the law will remain uncertain until Judge Crabb makes a decision regarding whether to issue an injunction and the form such an order would take. If an injunction is issued and then stands following the anticipated appeal, employers who employ employees who have a same-sex spouse would no longer impute Wisconsin income tax for health coverage, and would otherwise recognize such spouse for all legal purposes. Because of the uncertainty in the current climate, employers should consider whether to continue imputing income for benefits provided to same-sex spouses until such time as transitional guidance is issued by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue on this issue.

Nothing has changed as it relates to unmarried domestic partners—these individuals are still subject to imputed income where the individual obtains coverage on behalf of his or her domestic partner.

Because employee benefits rules are largely governed by federal law, many same-sex marriage changes in employee benefits have been observed already since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Windsor decision of last year. If the Judge Crabb ruling stands, the most significant change for Wisconsin employers will likely pertain to Wisconsin tax treatment of family health coverage. 

What should employers do in response?

  • Account for those same-sex couples who may have been married in a state that permitted same-sex marriage or who are newly married in Wisconsin following Judge Crabb’s decision;

  • Examine if modification of FMLA policy/forms is warranted based upon the changes; and

  • Examine if modification to benefit plan materials may be necessary.

©2020 MICHAEL BEST & FRIEDRICH LLPNational Law Review, Volume IV, Number 162


About this Author

Charles Stevens, Michael Best Law Firm, Labor and Employment Attorney

A persuasive advocate, Charlie vigorously defends employers and benefit plans in courts and other forums. He excels at assessing and fixing problems that arise with employee benefit programs and providing a strategically driven approach to benefits compliance and risk management planning.

As exclusive employee benefits counsel to many nationwide employers, Charlie’s practice focus extends to:

  • Counseling on Affordable Care Act (ACA) compliance and strategic planning, particularly with respect to contingent...

Kirk Pelikan, Michael Best Law Firm, Labor and Employment Attorney

Kirk’s practice focuses on legal issues related to all aspects of the employment cycle, from hiring through termination and severance. Substantially experienced in both benefits and employment law, Kirk is well positioned to help clients respond to the opportunities, vulnerabilities and benefit ramifications of particular employment decisions.

Kirk’s focus includes:

  • Developing and maintaining effective compliance strategies related to defined benefit plans, defined contribution plans, executive compensation and welfare benefit plans

  • Counseling clients on Affordable Care Act (ACA), COBRA, and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance

  • Advising clients on Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and disability compliance

  • Helping clients maintain tax-qualified plan status