The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides survivors benefits to widows or widowers starting at 60 years old. Social Security previously required same-sex couples to be married for nine months to become eligible to receive survivor’s benefits. However, with several states enforcing a ban on same-sex marriage, it was challenging to meet the nine-month requirement. As a result, in 2018, Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ rights nonprofit group, filed class-action lawsuits against SSA.
One lawsuit was filed on behalf of Helen Thornton, who was in a relationship with Marge Brown for three decades prior to Ms. Brown’s passing in 2006. The couple was not married due to a ban on same-sex marriage in their home state of Washington. Once eligible, Ms. Thornton applied for survivor’s benefits, but was denied by SSA. A federal court in Washington ruled in favor of Lambda Legal, stating that SSA must reopen prior cases where individuals would have qualified for benefits but could not have previously married due to state bans on same-sex marriage. Although the Trump-administration appealed the federal court’s ruling, on November 1, 2021, SSA and The Department of Justice dismissed the appeal that the Trump administration had filed.
A second lawsuit was filed on behalf of Michael Ely, who was in a relationship with James Taylor for 43 years. The couple married once same-sex marriage became legal in their home state of Arizona. They remained married until Mr. Taylor passed away seven months later. Since the couple was not married for the nine month period, Mr. Ely’s application for survivor’s benefits was denied. The lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal on his behalf was successful and a federal court in Arizona determined that SSA can no longer deny survivor’s benefits to individuals if they were not married for the nine month period. Instead, SSA must examine whether same-sex marriage was permitted in the applicant’s state before issuing a decision. The Trump-administration challenged this ruling, but SSA and The Department of Justice also dismissed the appeal on November 1, 2021.
This decision to dismiss the appeals came as a relief, both financially and emotionally, for many who were denied benefits despite being with their spouses or partners for several years. Survivor’s benefits are important because Social Security considers the survivor’s income and the deceased spouse’s income and will pay the survivor benefits based on the higher income earner. Thus, individuals can obtain larger benefits than they would receive based on their own income, which can be life changing for many individuals.
Social Security has released notices for those who might find themselves in a similar situation as Ely, where the couple was married but it was for less than nine months. In addition, those similarly placed in Thornton’s situation, where they were not married, but can prove that they would have been married if they were legally allowed to do so, may also be eligible for benefits. Social Security has encouraged such individuals to reach out to them so they can determine eligibility.