Same-Sex Partners, Spouses Finally Eligible For Social Security Survivor's Benefits

“Today’s development ensures that the door stays open for seniors who were wrongly locked out," Lambda Legal said.
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Social Security survivor’s benefits are now available to same-sex spouses and partners after being denied to them for years based on old bans on gay marriage.

The Department of Justice and the Social Security Administration on Monday dropped federal appeals against two class-action lawsuits over the benefits, which allow surviving partners to access government payments. Thousands of same-sex couples, however, were refused the benefits amid requirements that they be married for a minimum of nine months.

The group Lambda Legal filed two class-action suits on behalf of surviving spouses and partners in 2018, saying many Americans were unable to marry because of bans on gay marriage or they weren’t able to be married for the nine-month period after marriage equality laws were passed.

“This is a historic development with immense implications: survivor’s benefits are now equally available to everyone, including potentially thousands of same-sex partners who could not marry their loved ones and may have thought it was futile to apply,” Peter Renn, Lambda Legal’s counsel, said in a statement. “Today’s development ensures that the door stays open for seniors who were wrongly locked out from critical benefits because of discriminatory laws.”

In one case, Michael Ely married his partner, James Taylor, immediately after Arizona allowed same-sex couples to wed. They had been together for 43 years, but Taylor died of cancer six months later, leaving Ely a few months short of the requirement to get survivor’s benefits.

In another case, Lambda Legal filed a suit on behalf of Helen Thornton, who was in a relationship with Marge Brown for 27 years. Brown died in Washington state in 2006 before same-sex couples could get married. When Thornton applied for Social Security benefits in 2015 just before she turned 60, she was denied.

She appealed the decision for three years without success before Lambda Legal filed a suit that later gained class-action certification.

“For decades, same-sex couples paid into social security, just like different-sex couples,” Karen Lowey, a senior counsel at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “The difference was, only one group always had the freedom to marry, leading to gross inequalities that continued to linger.”

Federal district courts in Arizona and Washington ruled in both cases last year that excluding those like Ely and Thornton from survivor’s benefits was unconstitutional. But Donald Trump’s administration filed appeals to both decisions, and President Joe Biden had yet to drop the lawsuits until Monday.

Thornton said the news was long overdue but hadn’t come too late for many surviving partners.

“Marriage equality came too late for many of us, but it was not too late to fix this problem involving survivor’s benefits,” Thornton said in a statement Monday. “I hope everyone who has been harmed by this problem but never dared to apply for benefits understands that this development is a game-changer. The pathway is now finally open to everyone.”

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