University System of Georgia adds same-sex spouses to retirement plan

The Board of Regents voted on June 30 to comply with federal IRS laws and recognize same-sex marriages for participants within the University System of Georgia’s Optional Retirement Plan (ORP), according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC).

John H. Millsaps, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Strategic Communications at the Board of Regents, said there are two plans offered to University System of Georgia’s (USG) employees — ORP and Teachers Retirement System of Georgia plan (TRSGA).

“The default program when you’re hired is the teacher’s retirement system, which handles retirement programs for not only K-12 teachers, but employees of the university system. They have a board that runs it [and] they’re responsible for managing that plan,” Millsaps said.

USG employees also have a one-time option to not accept the TRSGA retirement plan and opt-out for ORP that is run by the Board of Regents, according to Millsaps.

“If you [USG employee] choose that program then that’s the program you’re on,” he said. “What the board had to do in June was because they’re responsible for the administration of that Optional Retirement Plan. They had to redefine the definition of spouse or surviving spouse to be in compliance with the federal tax law.”

About 27,000 employees at universities and colleges within the state participate in ORP, according to the AJC. Georgia defines ‘spouse’ as a union between a man and woman only.

“The IRS retirement plan rules apply to people who were married in states where same-sex marriage is recognized, regardless of whether a person currently lives in a state, such as Georgia, where same-sex marriage is not recognized,” Marion Fedrick, the University System’s vice chancellor of human resources, said to the AJC.

Millsaps said the vote only affects minimum distribution rules and roll overs, which may affect federal tax liability upon the death of a spouse.

“The board had to do that as a mandatory change to comply with IRS regulations. So it doesn’t change eligibility requirements [or] any other programs that we offer,” he said.

USG employees who are in same-sex relationships will not receive benefits such as health care coverage, health benefits or dental insurance, according to Millsaps.

“When you enroll in a benefits program like this or a retirement program you can designate a beneficiary. Should you die and that beneficiary becomes eligible for those funds, the tax penalty you pay is different if you’re spouse or just someone else,” Millsaps said.

The tax penalty that a non-spousal beneficiary would be liable for upon a death would be different to that of someone who is a beneficiary and a spouse, according to Millsaps.

Taylor Alexander, former leader of the Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (Alliance) at Georgia State, said there is a grave importance to the board’s recent amendment.

“…Having tried to budge the board for several years on several issues, I know the importance of this. However, I feel like if retirement benefits for LGBTQ folks is being discussed, then you can’t try to negate opening the dialogue up to include overall health care,” Alexander said. “It’s due time for this to happen and doing it in small steps only gets you so far.”

Jamel Forte, who was named secretary for the alliance in spring 2014, said she appreciates the Board’s vote and could benefit many same-sex couples in the future.

“Well in terms to the retirement plan, I think that it could be a positive step in the right direction,” Forte said. “I appreciate that it will pertain to those that are married even if they still live in Georgia. A plan like that could benefit many same-sex couples that are of retirement age.”

Forte also said she believes that in order for positive changes to take effect there must be more emphasis on educating people about same sex issues.

“There is so much ignorance about queer issues, but more importantly letting it be known that sexuality need not be a topic of discussion within the university system,” she said. “We all deserve those rights — to be able to get retirement, to acquire the same health care benefits, etcetera.”