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Same-Sex Partners Win Right to Social Security Survivor Benefits

Helen Thornton and Marge Brown

Those turned down for survivor's benefits because they were unable to legally marry should have access to the benefits, a federal judge rules.

Pictured: Helen Thornton (at right) and at left with her partner, Marge Brown.

A federal court ruled Friday that the Social Security Administration's blanket denial of Social Security survivor's benefits to same-sex spouses who were prevented from marrying is unconstitutional.

The ruling came in the case of Helen Thornton, a resident of Washington State who sought to claim survivor's benefits based on her 27-year relationship with Marge Brown, who died in 2006, six years before same-sex couples in the state had the right to marry. Brown had a more extensive work record than Thornton, who supplements her own modest Social Security income by taking care of animals, notes a press release from Lambda Legal, which represented Thornton along with attorneys from the firm of Nossaman LLP.

Thornton applied for the benefits in 2015, shortly before she would have been eligible to receive them at age 60. But the SSA turned her down because she and Brown had not been legally married, even though state law prevented them from marrying. She filed suit in 2018 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

On Friday, a judge in that court, James L. Robart, ruled that denial of the benefits violated the U.S. Constitution. He also certified the case as a national class action, meaning others who have sought the benefits and been denied simply because they were unable to marry their partner will have an avenue to claim them.

The court "believes that the appropriate form of relief to provide to the class is an order that requires the Administration to (1) re-adjudicate class members' claims for survivor's benefits, and (2) refrain from denying class members' claims solely on the basis that class members were not married to their same-sex partner," he wrote. In his ruling, he was adopting the recommendation made by a magistrate judge in January.

"Margie and I were fortunate to share 27 years of love and commitment together on this earth, and I'm gratified that the judge understood that, even though we were barred from marriage, our love and commitment was no different than that between heterosexual couples who had the freedom to marry," Thornton said in the Lambda Legal release. "We gladly paid into the Social Security system through our jobs, and it is an enormous relief to know I'm entitled to the same financial protections that are available to surviving spouses."

"We are delighted for Helen and similarly situated same-sex partners nationwide who can no longer be treated as strangers in death to their loved ones," added Lambda Legal lawyer Peter Renn. "Many of these couples built enduring relationships with each other that spanned decades, and they would have been honored to assume the mantle of marriage, thereby qualifying for survivor's benefits. Today, one more legacy of discriminatory marriage bans has been struck down and surviving same-sex partners will no longer be robbed of their earned benefits."

Lambda Legal had won a separate class action lawsuit in May on behalf of same-sex couples who had been able to marry but not for the minimum nine months required for receiving survivor's benefits. The Social Security Administration has appealed that decision.

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