ATLANTA — Married same-sex couples will get tax benefits equal to heterosexual couples through a retirement plan offered by the University System of Georgia, following a Monday vote by the system's governing board.
Gay marriage remains a contentious issue in Georgia, where a lawsuit is challenging the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage that was added to the state's constitution in 2004. Attempts to get full domestic partner benefits at the largest university system school, the University of Georgia in Athens, have stalled in recent years.
University system officials said Monday's vote was prompted by federal guidance, based on the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act only allowing marriage between a man and a woman. The Internal Revenue Service ruled certain retirement plans that did not include same-sex couples in the definition of "spouse" had to be updated.
Previously a university system employee who chose the defined contribution retirement plan could list anyone as beneficiary, but a same-sex spouse could pay a higher tax rate than a spouse recognized under Georgia law. State law defines marriage as between a man and a woman, preventing same-sex spouses from receiving the same federal tax benefits as heterosexual couples.
Now, a university system employee who chooses the Optional Retirement Plan could list his or her spouse as beneficiary and know that person will pay lower federal fees and be able to roll the retirement money into another account.
The change doesn't affect the university system's finances, and system officials aren't sure yet how many couples will be eligible, said Marion Fedrick, vice chancellor of human resources. About 27,240 system employees use the Optional Retirement Plan affected by the decision.
"It's a very small change for us," she said. "It's really to the benefit of the beneficiary."
Since Georgia doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, spouses won't be eligible for any other benefits through the university system, including health care.