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Same-Sex Spouses Win Equal Access to Social Security Survivor Benefits

senior couple

A federal court ruled Wednesday that the Social Security Administration must consider claims for survivor’s benefits by same-sex spouses who were unable to be married for at least nine months because of state marriage bans.

Even where couples married as soon as bans were lifted between 2004 and 2015 (the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all remaining bans in the latter year), many were unable to be married for the minimum nine months before one spouse died, and the SSA denied them benefits for not being married for long enough, notes Lambda Legal, which brought the case on behalf of Michael Ely, an Arizona man whose husband died six months after their marriage. The U.S. District Court for Arizona ruled that the denial of benefits to Ely was unconstitutional, as the law that had kept them from marrying had been found unconstitutional. The court also gave the case class action status, providing a pathway for other surviving spouses to seek benefits.

“This is a tremendous victory for many surviving same-sex spouses nationwide who have been locked out of critical benefits because they were unlawfully barred from marriage for most of their relationships,” Lambda Legal counsel Peter Renn said in a press release.

“Many same-sex couples were in loving, long-term, and committed relationships for decades — and they shouldn’t be treated as strangers in death simply because they were unable to marry for most of that time. No one should be penalized for being the victim of discrimination. The denial of access to these critical benefits can have dire consequences, with some of our class members experiencing homelessness.”

Ely married his partner of 43 years, James “Spider” Taylor, immediately after Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage was struck down in 2014. Taylor died of cancer six months later. The SSA denied Ely survivor’s benefits for not being married for nine months, even though that was legally impossible for him in Arizona.

“It is gratifying to have the court today recognize the 43 years of love and commitment that my late husband and I shared, rather than looking only at the date on a marriage certificate that we were denied for most of our lives,” Ely said in the release. “My late husband, who went by the nickname ‘Spider,’ was the love of my life, and we got married as soon as the law permitted. My husband paid into Social Security with every paycheck, and I know he can rest easier now knowing that I, at last, will start receiving the same benefits as other widowers.”

One class member, Josh Driggs of Phoenix, had experienced homelessness on two separate occasions after Social Security denied him survivor’s benefits based on his more than 40-year relationship with his husband, Glenn Driggs, and he fell behind in his rent.

“While these monthly benefits may seem modest, they can make the life-changing difference between having enough food, medication, or a roof over one’s head,” Driggs said in the release. “For me, the denial left me out in the cold, literally. I had to leave the home that my husband and I had shared, and I became homeless twice — once on the eve of Thanksgiving, which I spent in my van in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I’m relieved to know that no one else in our community will have to experience that indignity simply because of who they loved.”

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