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LGBT Spouses Denied Social Security Survivors’ Benefits

Grieving LGBT spouses who recently lost a loved one are being dealt another harsh blow by the Social Security Administration, which is refusing to pay survivors’ benefits to same-sex spouses living in states where their marriage is not recognized. One couple married in Boston but living in Texas was together for over thirty years when one passed away from cancer. The SSA refused to pay benefits to the surviving spouse because although they were married in a state that recognized the union, their state of residence does not.

Survivors’ Benefits Lawsuit

As of now, Social Security will not approve applications for spousal or survivors’ benefits for LGBT couples in Texas and sixteen other states that still do not recognize same-sex marriage. In order to get justice for herself as well as other same-sex widows and widowers, Kathy Murphy, 62, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare are suing the Social Security Administration claiming that denying benefits to married same-sex couples is unconstitutional discrimination.

Quick History of LGBT Benefits Law

In 2010, when Ms. Murphy and her now deceased wife were married the federal Defense of Marriage Act prevented same-sex spouses from receiving federal benefits. However, after last year when the Supreme Court ruled that parts of the act were unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor, many federal agencies began to prepare for same-sex couples to apply for benefits.

In regards to immigration and taxation purposes, same-sex couples are considered equal to heterosexual couples in the eyes of the law. In addition, LGBT couples also receive the same military benefits and federal employees receive spousal benefits regardless of orientation. However, the SSA is claiming that even though it is considered a federal agency, it must abide by state laws.

Social Security Administration Arguments

The SSA claims that the statute regarding the administration’s formation requires it to follow the state laws. Furthermore, it bases the dissemination of spousal and survivor benefits not on the “place of celebration” where the couple was married but on the “place of domicile,” the state where the couple lives. In terms of the pending lawsuit, the Social Security Administration claims that because Ms. Murphy lives in Texas, a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, she was not for the purposes of Social Security benefits a widow.

Even though same-sex marriage was legalized in fifteen more states last month, the SSA is still denying benefits to couples in those states if the marriage was not recognized on the relevant date. This means that any retroactive benefits for same-sex couples in these states are not allowed.

Effects of the Social Security Rules

Who qualifies for Social Security benefits affects nearly all elderly individuals in the United States. Retirement benefits, survivor benefits, and disability payments are all at stake. For LGBT couples, the results of being denied benefits can come at a financially costly price. In Ms. Murphy’s case, she had originally planned to apply for Social Security benefits at the full retirement age of 66, but she retired early to care for her ailing wife. As a result, she receives a lower pension, needed income, and was relying on spousal benefits to help until she could use her own Social Security benefits.

When added together, the financial consequences of being denied survivors’ benefits are not small. Had Ms. Murphy qualified for the anticipated $1,210 per month in spousal benefits from her wife, applied for her own retirement benefits at 66, she would have ended up receiving $2,130 per month for the rest of her life. Instead, because she was denied spousal benefits, Ms. Murphy was forced to start drawing from her own benefits early and only receives $1,547 per month. The difference could add up to more than $140,000 over the rest of her life.

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